Stephen Curry's chase for perfection and the wild world of shot analytics

Stephen Curry's chase for perfection and the wild world of shot analytics

Stephen Curry stepped to the foul line and looked at the rim. It was early in the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the Western Conference finals and the Golden State Warriors were trailing the Portland Trail Blazers 101-92 on the road. Curry, one of the greatest shooters ever, was readying himself for the first of three critical free throws. The Warriors needed all three if they wanted to really make it a game.
 
Instead, Curry’s first free throw clanked off the back iron. The Portland crowd erupted in gleeful cheer. Curry began to laugh, with his mouthpiece jutting out of his mouth. 

Curry missing a late-game free throw is the rarest of occurrences. On the ABC broadcast, announcer Mike Breen told the audience just how rare: It was Curry’s first missed free throw in the fourth quarter and overtime of a postseason game since Game 6 of the 2015 NBA Finals, ending a streak of 81 consecutive made free throws in that situation. That’s right, 2015.

But if you ask him, Curry’s laugh was a front. The two-time MVP was genuinely mad at himself.

“Yes, because I knew about that streak,” Curry told NBCSports.com after a recent Warriors practice. “The perfectionist in me takes over. You hear something like the streak and you want to keep it going for as long as I can. I just don’t like missing free throws in general.”

Undeterred, Curry stepped up to the line and swished the next two free throws, both with a grin on his face. He may not have known it at the time, but that final free throw had made him a blistering 94-of-100 at the line this postseason. 
 
History is within reach. Ahead of the 2019 NBA Finals, Curry is making a run at the best free throw postseason run ever. The only person in NBA history to shoot better on at least 100 free throws in a postseason is Dirk Nowitzki in 2011 when he made 175 of 186 (94.1 percent). Curry is at 94 percent.
 
To understand how obsessive Curry is at the free-throw line, you have to first realize that making them isn’t good enough. Curry needs to swish them. This is the game within the game. To see that, you have to go back to one particular free throw two days before.

* * *

Curry’s chase for perfection at the free throw line begins with almost unflinching repetition. Every NBA player has a free-throw routine, but Curry takes it a step further.
 
First, the quirky mouthpiece. Curry clenches it in his jaw a certain way so that it juts out of the left side of mouth and points to the sky. Not the right side of his mouth, always the left. Not at a 45-degree angle, almost always pointing vertical.

Once that’s in place, there is the approach. Curry catches the ball from the referee and steps to the line, with the ball on his left hip. He looks down and taps just behind the nail of the line with his right toe (every gym has a nail on the free-throw line that marks the center of the hoop) and then sets up his feet so the nail is in the middle of his stance. His right foot is a couple inches in front of his left. His right arm dangles limp for a moment. 
 
Then he gathers the ball, dribbles once and shoots it, holding his follow through with his right hand, all in one fluid motion. Every single time.
 
There’s a post-shot routine as well. If it’s his first attempt, he daps up his teammates, make or miss. If it’s his second, and he makes it, he taps his chest with his right hand and points to the sky as he retreats back on defense.

Everything is consistent. Except for when things go wrong. 

Like early in the third quarter of Game 3 against Portland after Curry got fouled and made his first free throw. Except this time, Curry appeared to get mad. As he reached out his hands to high-five his teammates, he shook his head side-to-side as he stared at the rim. Then, a detour: He walked toward the rim and pointed at it like the rim had committed some sort of crime. Something went wrong.

It turns out Curry was mad because the ball grazed the back of the rim as it swished through the net. It wasn’t a clean swish. Curry was getting mad at an inanimate object for being slightly in the way.

This bothers Curry because of the post-practice drill he started years ago. After every practice or workout, when he’s physically and mentally fatigued, Curry forces himself to make 10 free throws in a row -- but with a catch: At least five of them have to be swishes. If he makes 10 in a row, but four were swishes, he has to start from scratch. He can’t go see his kids. He can’t sit down. He can’t get on with his day until he swishes five out of 10 makes in a row.

That’s why he got mad at the imperfect make in Portland.

“That’s part of my routine when I practice,” Curry said. “I have to make five swishes out of 10 to end every workout. It’s like you set a bar for how you want to see the ball to go through the basket every time. Even ones that go in but don’t feel right, as a shooter, it doesn’t feel good.” 

Curry’s long-time skills trainer Brandon Payne, founder of Accelerate Basketball training outside Charlotte, said Curry is so good that Payne will change the game to what he calls “Sixty,” as in swish 60 percent of 10 straight makes. 

“If it’s a day when he’s shot the ball exceptionally well, then I’ll change it to 70,” Payne says. 

On some occasions, Curry will challenge his coach, Steve Kerr, to a free-throw-shooting competition where makes count for one and swishes count for two points. The idea is to challenge Curry but also to simulate the pressure-cooker environment of the playoffs. It’s forcing Curry’s brain to focus on the smallest of details -- not if the ball goes through the rim, but how it goes through the rim. That requires laser-like concentration that comes in handy during high-pressure moments.

* * *

It’s hard to be surprised by anything Curry does anymore. A season with 400 made 3s, five runs to the Finals and three championships will do that. But if you’re interested in watching the mastery of the basketball shot, this run of free throws is the purest distillation of that.
 
Curry’s playoff percentage of 94 percent hints at a perfected craft, but this fact hammers it home: Curry swished 84 of his 100 attempts this postseason. Eighty-four percent. Curry’s father, Dell Curry, was one of the greatest shooters ever and he made 84 percent of his free-throws for his career.
 
Even more remarkable is how dead-eye straight his free throws are. His free throw bounced off the right or left side of the rim just once in 100 postseason attempts. The other 21 bounces were either at the front of the rim, the back rim or the backboard. In fact, he needed the backboard just three times on 100 shots, all of which led to makes.

At this level of precision, work ethic isn’t enough. Superstars need an obsessive attention to detail. For the better part of the last decade, Payne has charted thousands of Curry’s shots using various ball-tracking gadgets and cutting-edge software. One of them, the Noah machine, uses a camera built into the wall to track shot trajectory -- software that LeBron James and Dwyane Wade used in its early stages back in 2012 when it was installed at the Miami Heat practice court. 

Curry and Payne have also leaned on RSPCT, a shot-tracking company that uses a small camera behind the backboard to detect where the ball enters the rim. That same company, just this month, partnered with player-tracking program Kinexon, which is used by about a third of the NBA. RSPCT recently publicized that Kawhi Leonard’s series-ending shot against the Philadelphia 76ers had just a three percent chance of rattling in, given its arc angle and landing spot. 

Payne considers shot-tracking technology an essential part of his training with Curry and other athletes across all levels of the sport. The tools help take the guesswork out of training. Payne declined to make Curry’s private workout data public, but he said it has helped finetune Curry’s workouts, especially when it comes to fatigue.

“Extremely useful,” Payne said. “If you don’t have tracking data, it’s hard to see when the point of diminishing returns hits. The analytics provide the info to make those determinations. For some players it’s 100 shots. For others it might be 700.”

The insights are vast. When do athletes fatigue? Do they shoot shorter on the left side versus the right side? How does fatigue manifest itself in the shot?

Shot tracking is big business. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment Ventures (which owns the Philadelphia 76ers), former 76ers president Sam Hinkie and Hall of Fame point guard Steve Nash have invested in HomeCourt, an iPhone app that uses AI technology to help basketball players improve their shot and dribbling mechanics with instant video review. Curry is one of the many NBA players who have used the HomeCourt app to track his makes and misses while he’s practicing on the road without a Noah or RSPCT tracker installed in the gym.

Toronto Raptors guard Jeremy Lin is one of the key investors in HomeCourt’s $4 million funding round last year. The 30-year-old told NBCSports.com that the machine learning technology built into the iPhone app didn’t just track his makes and misses simply by setting his phone on a bleacher gym; it has helped him identify shot imbalances, brought on by a prior injury, that went undetected by the naked eye. 

On jumpers on the right side of the floor, Lin found his shot percentages were way down. The Shot Science analytics detected that his hips swung at an abnormal rate and he landed with excess force on his left side, potentially a red flag for weakness in his right knee and ankle. His leg angles and vertical were also off, helping him identify areas of improvement and training.

“Once you get all that data, you can do so much with it,” said Lin. “I couldn’t even begin to fathom what I’d do with that information if I had access to this back in the day.”

According to HomeCourt, it has tracked over 20 million shots and over 17 million dribbles across the world in over 160 countries. The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers are two teams that have paid subscriptions to the shot-tracking technology and its suite of analytics. In the future, teams may not need to fly all over the world to find the next Stephen Curry with a perfect jump shot. They may just have to open up an app.

For Curry, all the grueling training sessions and his obsessive attention to detail have led to this moment. With three titles, two MVPs and a scoring title to his name, the only trophy that seems to be missing on his shelf is an NBA Finals MVP. 

Staying on this incredible free-throw run could go a long way to adding that elusive honor. With Kevin Durant sidelined with a calf injury, Curry has shouldered more of the scoring load in his absence. Against the Blazers in the Western Conference Finals, Curry averaged 36.5 points per game, thanks in part to a greater emphasis and proficiency at the line.

In the five full games that Durant has missed this postseason, Curry has averaged 8.6 free-throw attempts per game, up from his previous average of 5.2 attempts per game. With a 94-percent conversion rate, that’s no small thing. It has become one of his go-to weapons.

Curry’s free-throw trips may be the difference between a Warriors series win and a series loss. In Curry’s playoff career, the Warriors are 11-1 when Curry takes double-digit free throws, winning 10 straight. When he takes one or zero free throws, the Warriors are a more pedestrian 10-7 in playoff games. At this level of the postseason, the margins are incredibly slim and the luck of a bounce could decide the champion.

“You’re always searching for perfection,” Curry said, “even though it’s probably unattainable.”

Probably. 

But last Finals, Curry did make all fourteen of his free throws in the four-game sweep. This time, fourteen may not be enough to get past these Toronto Raptors. Just like a rimmed-in free throw, perfection isn’t enough when you’re Stephen Curry.

Ahead of his fifth NBA Finals, Stephen Curry is chasing history. Inside Curry's incredible run at the free throw line, his chase for perfection and the emerging world of shot analytics.

NBC Sports Bay Area's Monte Poole contributed reporting to this story. 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.

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