We at Ball Don’t Lie have been knee deep in basketball since the 2016-17 NBA season’s start — previewing all 30 teams, tackling the top 25 storylines and covering everything else that’s happened since — but we understand casual fans don’t fully dive in until Christmas. That’s why we’re bringing you a series we’re calling NBA Season’s Greetings. Consider it a refresher course on the free agents, coaches, trades, rookies and potential award winners that have shaped the league thus far.
Who among us will ever forget where we were when we learned the Detroit Pistons had acquired Cameron Bairstow from the Chicago Bulls in exchange for Spencer Dinwiddie between Games 6 and 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals? (NOTE: If you can seriously remember that, you have a problem.)
OK, so that trade didn’t exactly shift the balance of power in the NBA. Still, the deal offers an indication of how excited decision-makers get about the annual offseason game of musical chairs. They couldn’t even wait until the end of the season to start changing the seating chart.
Since the end of the 2015-16 regular season, we’ve seen 33 trades in the NBA. While more have tended toward Bairstow-for-Dinwiddie than Kevin Love-for-Andrew Wiggins on the impact spectrum, some swaps have helped shape the standings through the first quarter of the season. Let’s take a look at the early winners and losers from basketball’s barter market.
WINNER: The Utah Jazz
After coming one game shy of the playoffs last season, the Jazz entered the summer flush with young talent up front and on the wing, but with major questions in the backcourt due to the ineffectiveness of 2013 first-round pick Trey Burke and uncertainty surrounding 2014 first-rounder Dante Exum’s recovery from a torn ACL. So they did an exceedingly Utah Jazz thing, and traded for a steady, defense-first player whose offensive talents had been muted by the roles he was asked to play, and who lacked national recognition thanks in part to his unflashy name.
After five years of good-but-not-great teams and decidedly-not-great offensive production, Larry Bird decided that he wanted to go fast, and that he wanted a new point guard to hit the gas. A few phone calls later, Jeff Teague was a Pacer, and Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey found himself the proud owner of a gently used George Hill — whom he’d drafted while in the San Antonio Spurs’ front office — for the low, low price of the No. 12 pick in the 2016 draft, later used by the Hawks on Baylor’s Taurean Prince.
While he has rebounded somewhat from a slow start to the season, Teague’s barely shooting over 40 percent from the field and 30 percent from 3-point land, and his struggles to contain opposing ball-handlers have played a role in the Pacers’ slide to the middle of the pack in points allowed per possession. Prince has shown some flashes in Atlanta, and could be the next wing to blossom under the tutelage of Mike Budenholzer, but thus far, his minutes and impact have been limited.
Hill, meanwhile, has proven a hand-in-glove fit in Utah. He defends multiple positions, runs the club without dominating the ball, spots up well alongside Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood … and, as Pacers fans who often pined for more “Aggressive George Hill” can attest, he can also go get buckets. He’s averaging 20 points per game on 53.4 percent shooting and a 45.6 percent mark beyond the arc on 5.2 long-ball attempts per game — all career highs. The Jazz have outscored opponents by 14.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the court, nearly 10 points better than their mark when he’s off the floor.
“Off the floor,” unfortunately, has been the issue. Thumb and toe injuries have put Hill on the shelf for 15 of Utah’s 26 games, and with Hayward, Favors and Hood all missing some early-season time as well, Quin Snyder’s only gotten to run his preferred starting five for 12 measly minutes this year. Despite those early-season injury woes, though, the Jazz have clawed to a 16-10 record, good for sixth in the Western Conference, and are one of only four teams — alongside the 23-4 Warriors, the 21-5 Spurs, and the 19-7 Clippers — to rank in the NBA’s top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. If they can get everybody healthy, the draft-night deal for Hill could wind up being the move that advanced Utah from almost-there also-ran to serious contender.
WINNER, WITH A CAVEAT: The New York Knicks
The Knicks needed an upgrade at the point. With the free-agent market light on lead guards outside of Mike Conley, who got a historic top dollar to stay in Memphis, and Jeremy Lin, who wasn’t coming back to the Garden, Phil Jackson swung a deal that imported former NBA Most Valuable Player Derrick Rose and reserve wing Justin Holiday from the Chicago Bulls. The cost: center Robin Lopez, point guard Jose Calderon (later redirected to the Los Angeles Lakers to create space to complete the signing of Dwyane Wade), and 2015 first-round pick Jerian Grant, who spent much of his rookie season securely fastened to the bench, regardless of whether Derek Fisher or Kurt Rambis sat at its head.
Holiday has carved out a niche as a two-way stalwart on the Knicks’ scrappy second unit, and Grant has alternately struggled and shined in opportunities to run the Bulls afforded by Rajon Rondo’s injuries and intransigence. The headliner, though, is Rose, whose New York tenure began shrouded in off-court controversy as he contested a civil rape trial that concluded with the 28-year-old and his two friends cleared on all charges.
On the court, Rose has been a high-volume slasher who ranks in the NBA’s top 10 in points per game produced on drives to the basket, who has already attempted more shots inside the restricted area than any Knicks guard managed last season, and in whose minutes New York has scored at a rate (108.6 points per 100 possessions) that would rank just outside the top five in offensive efficiency this season. On the other end, he’s been more of a mixed bag. His individual assignments have shot worse than their season averages with him defending, but the Knicks’ already dire defense has hemorrhaged points with him on the floor, as stalling dribble penetration continues to be one of New York’s primary problems.
He’s been a more effective finisher than in the recent past, is getting to the foul line more often, and he’s shooting a higher percentage than he’s managed in years. But he also tends to look for his own offense first and is posting the lowest assist percentage of his career. By some advanced metrics, he’s been a slightly above-average triggerman; by others, he’s ranked somewhere among the lower-third of NBA guards thus far.
Rose hasn’t often looked like the kind of quicksilver game-breaker some Knicks fans hoped might still be lurking, but he’s been what Jackson sought: an on-ball upgrade who can compromise defenses off the bounce to create cleaner looks for Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. The loss of the ever-solid and perennially overlooked Lopez on the interior becomes more and more painful every time Joakim Noah struggles to perform the playmaking, rebounding and defensive tasks that once made him an MVP candidate, but Rose’s addition to Jeff Hornacek’s increasingly geometrically fluid attack has helped jolt the Knicks from the East’s lower reaches into the glut of teams vying for position in the tier (well) beneath the Cavaliers and Raptors.
For now, that’s a win. If Jackson and owner James Dolan overreact to the Knicks’ early-season uptick by choosing to re-up Rose on a lucrative long-term free-agent deal this summer, though, this could become an L real quick.
WINNER: The Milwaukee Bucks
General manager John Hammond’s biggest move this summer was getting Giannis Antetokounmpo’s signature on a four-year maximum-salaried contract extension. But the comparatively smaller deals he swung around the margins have helped the Bucks bounce back from a disappointing 2015-16 and weather what looked to be a catastrophic injury to return to the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
Feature-film-inspiring guard Matthew Dellavedova hasn’t shot the 3-ball as well as he did in Cleveland, and the Bucks offense has been a bit worse with him on the floor than off it, but he’s been a steady-enough hand who can share playmaking duties with Antetokounmpo, run the show himself for stretches, and compete on the defensive end. After the devastating loss of wing linchpin Khris Middleton, Hammond took a chance on former No. 2 overall pick Michael Beasley — who was playing in China this time last year — and has thus far reaped the benefits, with Super Cool Beas giving Milwaukee shot-making and rebounding off the bench.
Tony Snell, who’d fallen out of favor in Chicago, came over just before the start of the season in exchange for Michael Carter-Williams, who’d fallen out of favor in Wisconsin, and has stepped into the starting two-guard role vacated by Middleton’s injury. Like Dellavedova, his jumper hasn’t yet made the trip to Milwaukee, but the Bucks have stayed afloat with him on the floor, and Jason Kidd has praised his defensive work. Besides, he helped provide one of the truly great moments of this NBA season — an uncontested dunk created by Jason Terry bringing over J.R. Smith for dap in the middle of live game action:
If that’s not worthy of a win, I don’t know what is.
LOSER: The Orlando Magic
The Magic have been better of late, going 5-5 over their last 10 games and scoring like a top-10 offense over that span. Even given that, though, I’m just not sure I see how the reboot signaled by moving Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and rookie Domantas Sabonis for Serge Ibaka will really get anywhere.
Within that 10-game uptick, Orlando’s defense — intended to be its calling card after the additions of Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo — has struggled mightily, allowing 108.9 points per 100 possessions despite more than half of those games coming against mediocre or worse offenses. Frank Vogel’s re-tooled starting lineup — Biyombo and Ibaka up front, Aaron Gordon at small forward, Evan Fournier and D.J. Augustin in the backcourt — has been walloped by 35 points over 116 minutes in that run.
The early returns on Vogel’s experiment of expanding Gordon’s game by trying to turn him into a giant small forward have been iffy, at best. For every breakout performance like Wednesday’s 33 points on 13-for-21 shooting outing against the Clippers, there have been at least a couple of awkward single-digit clunkers.
Ibaka has shaken a slow start to find his shot-making rhythm over the past month, and Orlando’s offense has started to display a bit more punch since Jodie Meeks — acquired from the Pistons for a future second-rounder pick — made his debut following foot surgery in July. Elfrid Payton has come on a bit since his move to the bench. Gordon’s got talent to burn with a work ethic to match. Vogel’s a determined and skilled coach who will keep churning in search of the right mix. This could still work.
Two months into the season, though, I worry that all the Magic’s revamp has done is get them two months closer to having to decide whether to give Ibaka a max contract. On the bright side, though, they’re also two months closer to 2030, which will apparently be a big year for Orlando basketball fans.
LOW-KEY WINNER: Troy Daniels
Last year, Daniels had a tough time getting off the bench for the Charlotte Hornets, who featured a slew of playmakers and capable two-way wings. But shooting will just about always get another chance to fail in today’s NBA, and the Grizzlies — perpetually starved for perimeter floor-spacers — scooped up the former VCU marksman for cash considerations in a sign-and-trade, paying him the relative pittance of $3.3 million a year to see if he could make a difference from distance.
After early-season injuries to Conley, Tony Allen and Chandler Parsons left Memphis’ wing rotation in disarray, Daniels got his shot and didn’t hesitate to take it. He ripped off a stunning five-game stretch — 21.6 points in 30.5 minutes per game off the bench, shooting a blistering 47.7 percent from 3-point land on nearly nine attempts a night — that helped the Grizz stay afloat, and while he’d soon cool off, he showed on the back-end of Memphis’ home-and-home with the Cavs that he could relocate the touch, pouring in 20 points in 22 minutes to help the Grizzlies improve to 18-9, good enough for the fifth-best record in the West.
With Conley, Parsons and James Ennis on the mend, it’s likely that Daniels will once again find himself fighting for minutes. But by seizing the opportunity afforded him through a change of scenery and some bad injury luck, he reminded the NBA what he can do, and showed coach David Fizdale that he’s got another offensive weapon he can call on.
LOSER: Andrew Bogut
He went from a historically excellent title contender to perhaps the worst team in the NBA, and has been more notable this season for his commitment to “gotta hear both sides”-ing dangerous conspiracy theories than for anything he’s done on the floor. A rough tumble, my dude.
CONCEPTS LIKE VICTORY AND DEFEAT ARE, LIKE, LARGELY DEPENDENT ON YOUR STATE OF MIND, MAN: Various
• Thaddeus Young moved from the Nets to the Pacers for a first-round pick later used on Michigan’s Caris LeVert. In broad strokes, that’s a good thing; the Nets are bad and Indiana’s competing for a playoff berth. And yet, with the Pacers scuffling around .500 as they attempt to lock in a new identity, it feels a bit like Young’s back where he started his career a decade ago, toiling away for middling 76ers teams playing for little more than seventh or eighth seeds. At least he can actually remember his most recent win nowadays.
• Joffrey Lauvergne and Jerami Grant went from lottery-bound squads with frontcourt logjams — the Nuggets and 76ers, respectively — to a Thunder team with playoff aspirations led by the electric Russell Westbrook, who’d really prefer it if you’d stop talking about that insane thing he’s doing. On one hand, that’s a good deal for two players who have yet to sniff postseason play; on the other, OKC’s got a pretty crowded big-man rotation, too, and playing on a non-rebuilding team could mean smaller roles (both players have seen their playing time dip from their previous spots) and fewer opportunities to shine. In general, more team success is good, but whether it constitutes a clear win for two early-to-mid-20-somethings who haven’t yet made their NBA mark is a bit less clear.
• On the flip side of that coin: Ilyasova went from an inessential bench piece in Oklahoma City to a starting power forward getting 27 minutes and 11 shots a night in Philly. Is it better to rule in hell or serve in, um, Oklahoma City?
• Luke Babbitt went from spot-starting and bombing 3-pointers on average-to-bad teams in New Orleans to spot-starting and bombing 3s on an average-to-bad team in Miami. Whether this constitutes triumph or tragedy largely depends on whether you prefer po’boys and beignets or pastelitos and plátanos.
WINNERS, “ROLL WITH THE” DIVISION: Mike Dunleavy and Kay Felder
The veteran Dun and the rookie from Oakland went from a pair of comparably unexciting settings — the former, a reserve wing on a Bulls team in transition; the latter, an undersized second-round pick who faced an uphill battle to earn playing time in Atlanta — to getting to line up alongside LeBron James and the defending NBA champions. Sure, Dunleavy’s only playing 16 minutes a night and barely shooting 35 percent, and Felder’s caught DNPs in more than half of Cleveland’s games. But inconsistent minutes and opportunities are much easier to stomach when they come attached to an E-ZPass to the Finals.
BIG UPS TO YOUR MAN ALBERT MIRALLES: Albert Miralles
Albert Miralles is a 34-year-old center whom the Toronto Raptors picked in the second round of the 2004 NBA draft. He has never played in the NBA, and is currently averaging five points per game for Club Joventut de Badalona of Spain’s ACB. He — or, rather, his rights — got traded twice this summer — first, by the Bucks to the Cavs in the Dellavedova deal, and then by the Cavs to the Bulls for Dunleavy.
He has now been part of five NBA trades — for Pape Sow, Antoine Walker, Keyon Dooling, Dellavedova and Dunleavy — despite never at any point actually coming within shouting distance of playing in the NBA. And now, you know who he is, and you’ve heard the name Pape Sow for the first time in a decade, and you’re thinking about Toine’s shimmy.
Consider that my gift to you. Happy holidays, friends.
More from our NBA Season’s Greetings series:
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