Should the surprising Heat go star hunting?

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NBC Sports

Should the surprising Heat go star hunting?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adebayo is already Butler’s co-star

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should the Heat go after Chris Paul?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about smaller fish?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will the NBA bubble be safe for players?

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NBC Sports

Will the NBA bubble be safe for players?

The NBA recently released a 113-page health and safety protocol for the 22-team NBA restart.

Will it be enough to keep the players safe in the NBA bubble?

“There are millions and millions of people and thousands of activities that are far riskier than what the NBA is trying to attempt here,” said Nate Duncan on The Habershow podcast with NBC Sports national NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh.

Duncan, the host of a popular NBA (Dunc’d On Basketball) and COVID (Covid Daily News) podcast, does not anticipate a large spike in positive COVID-19 tests among NBA players.  

“Once we actually get into the bubble, between that point and the end of the season, I think fewer than 16 players will test positive,” Duncan said.

LISTEN TO THE HABERSHOW HERE

Here are the timestamps for Haberstroh’s interview with Duncan:

8:10  The NBA's rules for the bubble

17:20  Why Disney staffers don't necessarily need to be tested daily

32:10  The biggest threat to the bubble

42:30 Why the NBA could be in big trouble for next season

46:50  Whether the NBA should finish this season or not

For more from Haberstroh, listen to his conversation with TrueHoops’s Henry Abbott on life inside the NBA bubble

Zion Williamson, Pelicans enter NBA restart as most compelling team

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NBC Sports

Zion Williamson, Pelicans enter NBA restart as most compelling team

With the NBA heading to Orlando next week, there is no shortage of storylines to follow in the leadup to the league’s late-July restart. Everyone will be closely monitoring the coronavirus front. Go ahead and brace yourself for silly asterisk talk. Keep an eye on the lack of home-court advantage. The mental health aspect of spending months in a bubble will be a challenge but maybe also an opportunity

But in my mind, no storyline is more fascinating than the immediate future of the New Orleans Pelicans. Between New Orleans’ explosive young roster, led by teenage phenom Zion Williamson, potential coronavirus complications on the floor and the bench, and a run at the No. 8 seed out West, no team embodies the full spectrum of conflicting emotions heading into the NBA bubble quite like the Pelicans. 

By all indications, all systems remain a go for Williamson. The plan is for him to continue progressing toward playing in Orlando, but, like the rest of the league, the Pelicans are not yet authorized for five-on-five work with their players. How Zion or any other player’s body responds to four months without organized basketball is anyone’s guess. 

Let’s assume Williamson does make the trip. That in itself is great news for the Pelicans, for fans, and, most notably, TV partners. 

It’s not a surprise the league put Williamson and the Pelicans front and center in a 6:30 p.m. ET tip-off against the Utah Jazz on ESPN to kick off the restart. New Orleans was booked for a franchise-record 30 national TV appearances in Williamson’s rookie season -- with good reason. According to ESPN tracking, national TV ratings were 30 percent higher for Williamson’s national TV games than the average nationally televised game. 

Zion-related ticket sales saw a similar boost. In road games that Williamson played, attendance in those visiting arenas soared to 19,022 fans on average, a towering figure that would have ranked No. 1 in road attendance for any team. By comparison, Anthony Davis and the 2018-19 Pelicans ranked just 19th in road attendance.

It’s worth noting that part of the surge in excitement was due to Williamson missing the first three-plus months of the season with a knee injury. However, once Williamson took the court in late January, he more than lived up to the hype. The 19-year-old was a marvel on the boards and showed far better playmaking skills than many expected. No teenager has ever posted a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) north of 22.0 in the NBA. Not LeBron, not Luka, not Kobe, not AD. 

Zion, entering Orlando play, is at 24.2. This is rarified air among rarified air. 

Now, it’s true that plenty of stud rookies put up monster numbers without corresponding team success (Kyrie Irving’s rookie season comes to mind). And yes, the Pelicans haven’t exactly lit the world on fire this season, but they’re 10-9 in games that Zion plays and 18-27 in games that he doesn’t. If you drill down even further, a superstar-level impact -- not just box score stats -- begins to emerge.

In the 565 minutes that Williamson played this season, the Pelicans have outscored opponents by 120 points, which works out to plus-10.4 points per 100 possessions. For any player, that’s an incredible figure. Among All-Stars, only Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Kawhi Leonard have higher on-court ratings. For a teenager, that’s obscene.

Worse yet for the league is the fact that the Pelicans are in prime position to maximize Williamson’s talents both now and in the future. Veterans Jrue Holiday, Derrick Favors and JJ Redick helped boost Williamson’s on-court numbers this year, while Lonzo Ball and All-Star forward Brandon Ingram, both just 22 years old, feature complementary skill sets to Williamson.

Knowing what kind of once-in-a-generation talent they had on their hands, the Pelicans didn’t want to overdo it with his minutes early on. But in time Williamson regularly played between 30 and 35 minutes and produced like a top-15 player in the league in those minutes.

It remains to be seen how the Pelicans plan to manage Williamson’s workload in the seeding games. Given his injury history, the long layoff and his immense size, Williamson’s availability will be one of the most fascinating storylines of the restart.

But one has to always wonder if his head coach, Alvin Gentry, will be managing those minutes at all. CDC guidelines state that individuals who are 65 years old or older are high risk for serious illness due to COVID-19. Gentry, who is 65, remains steadfast in his intentions to be in Orlando with his team at full capacity, telling The Athletic on Tuesday: “I plan on coaching without any restrictions. We’ll see if the league comes up with a different plan.” 

The coaching situation around the league remains fluid, sources say. While the National Basketball Players Association and National Basketball Referees Association have both announced ratified agreements on a return-to-play, the coaches’ union has not publicized a similar pact. Gentry’s top assistant coach and defensive guru Jeff Bzdelik, 67, may also be in occupational limbo due his age. According to Dallas Mavericks coach and president of the National Basketball Coaches Association Rick Carlisle, the NBA has told coaches that age alone won’t be sufficient enough of a reason to keep them from going to Orlando. Coaches, along with all staffers, will have their medical records screened by a panel of independent physicians to determine their risk levels.

To give it their best shot at the playoffs, the Pelicans will need all hands on deck. Beyond Williamson and the coaching situation, perhaps the most intriguing part of the Pelicans’ restart is their playoff situation. The Pelicans are currently 3.5 games back of the Memphis Grizzlies for the No. 8 spot, tied with the Portland Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings in the standings. Historically, a gap that wide is just about insurmountable.

But the Pelicans have been gifted a unique opportunity to punch their ticket into the postseason. New Orleans can earn a play-in series if they finish as the No. 9 seed and are within four games of the No. 8 seed. Heck, the Pelicans could supplant the Grizzlies in the eighth slot altogether.

Using win-loss records from the 2019-20 season, the Pelicans have the easiest strength of schedule of all the 22 Orlando-bound teams, with an average opponent win percentage of .495.  

They could fumble out the gate, but it will get easier. After two tough games against the Jazz and Clippers, the final six games on the Pelicans’ schedule will be against teams with losing records: Memphis, Sacramento, Washington, San Antonio, Sacramento (again) and Orlando. Even better for Pelicans’ chances, their strength of schedule pales in comparison to Memphis (.603), Portland (.601), San Antonio (.567) and to a lesser extent, Sacramento (.530). 

The path is there. If the Pelicans go 7-1 in the seeding games and the Grizzlies sputter with a 3-5 record or worse, the Pelicans would earn the No. 8 seed (barring a similarly dominant run by Portland, San Antonio or Sacramento).

At first glance, this appears to be an inside job by the NBA to get Williamson into the playoffs, but that’s not what’s happening here. With a brutal front-loaded schedule back in November and December, the Pelicans were supposed to have the easiest remaining strength of schedule down the stretch. The soft slate in Orlando actually maintains the integrity of the team’s original 82-game itinerary.

A lot can change between now and the Pelicans’ July 30 game. Medical staffs around the league remain worried about how players’ bodies will adjust to the new normal and a short ramp-up time. Four months without organized five-on-five basketball is unheard of in these players’ careers. 

And then there are the virus concerns. Three unnamed Pelicans players tested positive with coronavirus this week and there’s no telling how that might impact their health on or off the court. On Wednesday, Brooklyn Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie tweeted that he’s still feeling ill nearly a week after his initial positive test. The self-isolation programs may be completely prudent from an infectious-disease perspective, but it’s undeniably troublesome for a player’s conditioning and readiness to play. It’s unclear at this point if the Pelicans players who tested positive are symptomatic or expected to play without restriction in Orlando.

Raising more questions for New Orleans is the free agency side of things. Favors will be an unrestricted free agency this summ-- uh, fall and will be looking to cash in after a strong age-29 season. Meanwhile, Ingram will be a restricted free agent hoping for a big pay day from New Orleans or elsewhere. If either of those players feel significantly less than 100 percent in Orlando, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them sit out to preserve their long-term health and earning potential.

You can say what you want about LeBron James’ Lakers, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks and the rest of the contenders (don’t sleep on Houston or Philly, by the way). But in my book, no team is more compelling over the next month than the Pelicans. If Williamson is playing his full minutes and they’re able to send their complete coaching staff, I’m picking the Pelicans to make the playoffs and face none other than the Lakers in the first round. After the Davis trade a year ago, wouldn’t that be fun? Come to think of it, that matchup might be the most intriguing aspect of it all.

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