Usually around Christmas there are at least two or three teams that find their playoff hopes going up in smoke. Last season the Sixers, Nets, and Lakers were already at least eight games back from the eight seed in their respective conferences. This year there are none. Even the Sixers (7–23) and Nets (8–22), with the two worst records in basketball, are both within eight games of a playoff spot. Out west, the Suns and Mavs, both 9–22, are just five games out. With so many teams still in contention, Suns general manager Ryan McDonough believes the league is open for business, with teams hoping to make trades to bolster their playoff chances.
“If I had to guess I’d say there would be more early action this year,” McDonough told Bright Side of the Sun. “Where teams are saying, ‘Alright, we’re not going to wait until February, the trade deadline. Let’s do a deal in mid-December and solidify ourselves that extra 2-plus months to integrate a guy and climb up the standings to make sure we are in the playoffs.’”
That attitude could create an interesting trade environment without clearly defined buyers and sellers, though armchair general managers and trade-machine aficionados will still search for potential deals. So here are some musings and ideas to keep in mind with trade season approaching:
Should the Clippers Trade Blake Griffin?
The Clippers are 2–3 since Blake Griffin underwent “minor” surgery on his right knee, the first reported injury to his right leg after he suffered a long list of injuries to his left leg. Griffin will be out for a chunk of games for the third consecutive season, and the Clippers tend to perform well without him. Since the 2013–14 season, they’re 44–27 without Griffin. By comparison, the Clips are 16–15 without Chris Paul over that same time frame.
You’ve probably seen numbers like that tossed around before, but they don’t tell the whole Clippers-without-Griffin story. They do raise the question, though: Why don’t the Clippers lose much oomph without Griffin, but turn into an average team without Paul? It comes down to Griffin’s outside shooting. Griffin deserves respect for morphing from a dunk machine into a post/iso threat with range out to 21 feet, but he’s still not a threat from 3 at only 22.7 percent.
In the Doc Rivers era (since 2013–14), in the regular season and playoffs combined, the Clippers score 117.6 points per 100 possessions when Paul and Griffin are both on the floor, per NBA Wowy. That drops to 114.6 when Paul is on without Griffin, but it plummets to 103.7 when Griffin is on without Paul. Here’s a more detailed look:
The Clippers offense is still dominant, which makes it easy to understand why their record is still so good without Griffin. Their assist percentage is also remarkably higher; 69.9 percent would place them a smidge behind this season’s league leader, the Warriors at 71.9 percent. Their scoring efficiency is three points worse, but their effective field goal and true shooting percentages are nearly identical.
When CP3 is out, the Clippers point guards have been Austin Rivers, Jordan Farmar, Raymond Felton, Pablo Prigioni, and Lester Hudson, among others. Without Griffin, the Clippers have typically played small with 4s like Paul Pierce, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Wesley Johnson, Matt Barnes, Jeff Green, and Josh Smith. You can’t replace a star point guard with a journeyman, but teams across the league are swapping post-up monsters with skilled shooters and losing virtually no firepower on offense. The Clippers are no different.
Here’s how the Clippers shot distribution breaks down since 2013:
The Clippers attempt 6.6 percent more 3s when Griffin is off the floor, an unsurprising number considering the collection of stretch forwards listed above. With different personnel, the Clippers’ shot distribution changes, and they’re only scoring three fewer points per 100 possessions. Maybe the increased floor spacing mitigates the difference a scorer like Griffin makes, despite the fact that L.A. doesn’t actually add anything when it loses Griffin. But what if they did? What if the Clippers traded Griffin for a package including tons of value assets and a 3-and-D small-ball forward like Jae Crowder? With three max players on the roster, the Clippers have a math problem that forces Doc to scrape the bottom of the free-agent barrel each summer. They’d lack that third star without Griffin, but they’d add a great deal of financial flexibility while changing their roster complexion.
It’s at least possible they’d be better off. But it’s probably too late for the Clippers to maximize a return. Forget the fact that Griffin is hurt right now. Forget the fact that there’s legitimate concern about his long-term health. Forget the fact that he’s an awkward fit for modern offenses. Doc can’t expect a king’s ransom because Blake can opt out of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent in July. Even with a wink-wink promise to re-sign, a team isn’t going to go empty its treasure trove of assets for a rental. At last season’s trade deadline, the Hawks reportedly wanted the 2016 Nets pick from the Celtics in return for Al Horford. Boston balked at that demand, waited, and outright signed Horford in free agency. There are only a handful of teams with the assets to allow the Clippers to keep their seat at the NBA’s contender table, but not many are realistic destinations where Griffin would re-sign. Griffin would need to pick up his $21.4 million option for most teams to even consider it.
It’s not like the thought of a Griffinless Clippers team hasn’t crossed Doc’s mind. As The Ringer previously confirmed, the Celtics expressed interest in Griffin this summer, but they were merely exploratory trade conversations — talks that were no more serious than you or me shooting the shit in a fantasy basketball league. They were casual, hypothetical, and nothing more. Rivers vehemently denied the rumors, but it’s not unusual for general managers or decision-makers in any business to consider and plan for different scenarios. That’s what leaders do. If the Clippers continue to thrive without Griffin for the next four to six weeks, maybe then Rivers will be more inclined to take incoming trade offers seriously. It’s too bad that by that point it’ll probably be too late.
Cashing in on Andrew Bogut
Mark Cuban said last month the Mavericks won’t consider tanking until “game 75 or maybe game 70,” which is understandable, since tanking isn’t necessary with so few true bottom-feeder teams in the league. Dallas should still consider trading Andrew Bogut, though. Bogut is 32, and a free agent next summer. And he comes with knee issues. But the Aussie is still a brick wall when defending the interior, and he has tangible value to a contending team once he returns from his current knee injury.
A front-office executive told me in November there’d be “plenty” of interest if Bogut were available, which has since been conveyed by other outlets. ESPN’s Tim MacMahon said several league sources believe the Mavs could get a first-rounder for him, though that sounds like a bit much considering his latest health scare. Still, even an early-second-round pick would give the Mavs a shot at a quality prospect (or an extra trade chip).
There are multiple playoff teams in need of a rim protector. The Blazers need an enforcer perhaps more than any team in the NBA, but they’d have to be really optimistic about their playoff chances to move their current no. 9 pick in a stacked draft class. They’d also have to move either a core player or engineer a three-way trade to make the salary figures work, since they’re already well over the cap.
The Rockets are without center Clint Capela for four to six weeks and, according to The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski, they’re “probing” the trade market for bigs. They have a handful of young players and two mid-second-round picks (Denver’s no. 40 and Portland’s no. 39). They could use Corey Brewer’s $7.6 million deal as filler and have Sam Dekker or K.J. McDaniels absorb Brewer’s minutes. Keep in mind that the Rockets expressed interest in trading for Bogut this summer, but Bogut chose Dallas, according to MacMahon. A deal is historically unlikely, though, since the cross-state rivals rarely do business together. The last time the Rockets and Mavericks made a midseason trade was at the 1995 trade deadline, when Morlon Wiley and a second-round pick were sent to Houston for future NBA head coach Scott Brooks!
Toronto has the pieces — both its own first-round pick (no. 27) and the Clippers’ (no. 25) — but they don’t have the right placeholder salaries to make a deal work seamlessly. The Raptors have depth at the position, but none of their big men can match Bogut’s defense. The Celtics own Minnesota’s second-rounder, currently slotted at no. 36, and they have expiring salary-cap filler to match in Amir Johnson or Tyler Zeller. If the Mavs want a young wing who can stroke 3s, James Young seems like a player who’d be available after he was on the roster bubble this preseason.
The Mavs were beneficiaries of Kevin Durant’s decision to sign with the Warriors, adding Harrison Barnes as a free agent and Bogut in a sign-and-trade. Now might time for them to cash in.
Moving on From Rajon Rondo
The Bulls are a strange playoff-bubble team. They have wins against the Cavaliers and Spurs, and losses to the Lakers, Mavericks, Wolves, and Wizards. They have a starting backcourt of Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo, who only a few years ago called each other out for making “dirty” and “punk” plays. Chicago is last in 3-point makes and takes, and with a league-worst 3-point percentage of 30.7, only three teams since 2003 have shot it worse (2013 Wolves, 2012 Bobcats, and 2003 Nuggets). Wade played the role of Captain Obvious last week and admitted the Bulls have a spacing problem.
The future Hall of Famer had a point though; their lack of spacing puts a lot of fourth-quarter pressure on Jimmy Butler. The Bulls are a mess when the game slows down and teams start hustling back on defense, and they’re an anemic scoring team in the fourth. Overall, they have the sixth-best transition scoring offense, according to Synergy Sports, and the third-worst half-court scoring offense. In the fourth, they post a 97.0 offensive rating with assists on 49.4 percent of their makes.
“We got to get more action, more body movement,” Wade said, and he’s right. If the Bulls want any chance of making noise in the playoffs, they need to start moving the ball better, because feeble half-court scoring teams don’t survive in the postseason. Their problems run deep, but the most obvious and most fixable issue is their ball-dominant point guard. Rondo scores only 0.66 points per possession, which is the fourth-worst of all players to log at least 100 possessions, per Synergy. But Rondo still touches the ball enough to pass it more than any player in the NBA, per SportVU. I could show video of Rondo lollygagging on defense, but that’s already been done. Things only got worse in Boston, Dallas, and Sacramento, just as they will in Chicago. The Bulls need to find a new point guard, even if it means agitating the locker room. The players will get over the change if it helps them win.
One problem with moving on from Rondo: He has no value on the trade market because he’s not good anymore and most teams already have a starter at point. Rondo does have an expiring $14 million contract (with a partial guarantee of $3 million for next season) that could be used as filler as part of a larger deal. Maybe the Bulls could package Rondo with a young player (like Bobby Portis or Denzel Valentine) and multiple draft picks. (They have all of their future picks and Sacramento’s top-10 protected first in 2017. The Kings are in the lead for the eight seed, so it’s always possible that it converts.) Even if a deal isn’t consummated, the Bulls should at least explore that option.
The argument could be made that the Bulls don’t even need to find a point guard if they trade (or release) Rondo. They could always attempt to make a philosophical change and increase the playmaking responsibilities of both Wade and Butler. When Rondo is on the floor, Butler and Wade combine for 10.5 assists per 100 possessions, compared with 14.3 when he’s off. They aren’t necessarily true point guards, but if Chicago could land a wing like Allen Crabbe or Will Barton, the two best Bulls could share the point guard responsibility while better spacing the floor.
If the Bulls do upgrade at point guard, there’s big problem no. 2: There aren’t many options. Teams are looking to buy, not sell, since so many franchises are in the playoff hunt. A lower-end guy like Timberwolves second-year point guard Tyus Jones could be available since he’s buried on the bench behind Ricky Rubio and Kris Dunn. Jones is a high-IQ player and a significantly better shooter than Rondo who plays hard on defense and can run a tight pick-and-roll. Then there’s Goran Dragic, whom Miami has reportedly pursued trading, according to The Vertical’s Chris Mannix. (Mannix noted that Dragic is open to a deal, which Dragic forcefully denied.) Dragic is theoretically a good combo-guard fit in Fred Hoiberg’s read-and-react offense; he’s shot 39.1 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s since 2013, per SportVU, compared to 35.7 percent for Rondo. Beyond the percentages, Dragic simply demands more attention from the defense when the ball isn’t in his hands.
Wade and Dragic didn’t exactly mesh playing over a full season together in Miami, but it might be worth a shot. If Dragic helps short-term, then that’s fantastic, but the long-term impact still matters most. The Bulls must assemble a winner before Butler hits free agency in 2019. No matter what they do now, Wade and Rondo could be long gone by then. Dragic has a relatively cheap contract that also runs through 2019 (both he and Butler have options for 2020). If a Butler-Dragic pairing shines, the Bulls would have the cap space to attempt to sign a big-time free agent in 2018.
All stats current as of Monday evening.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Corey Brewer as Booker in one instance.