The NBA news cycle comes at you faster than a Ja Morant dunk. So every Monday this season, we’ll be looking at the most important story lines, trends, and talking points for the week ahead. Welcome to the NBA’s Biggest Questions of the Week.
Below, we’ll touch on early trade-season rumors, the Mavericks’ short-term outlook without Luka Doncic, Bucks vs. Lakers, and more. Let’s get to it.
Who Will Be the First Big Trade Piece to Fall?
So far, this NBA season has been relatively quiet on the trade speculation front. While names like Kevin Love and Andre Iguodala have been bandied about as definite trade pieces, other names have yet to hit the rumor mill. Sunday, though, marked the first day that teams could begin trading players they signed in free agency this summer, so: Let the floodgates open.
There are a few teams that have gotten off to disappointing starts and could look to sell. Take the Pelicans, for example. They seemed like a dark horse playoff candidate entering the season but are now 6-21 and still waiting for Zion Williamson to return from knee surgery. Maybe it’s time to see what they can get for a win-now player like JJ Redick (Adrian Wojnarowski said on ESPN Sunday night that the Bucks might look into getting Redick), or even Jrue Holiday. Up in the Bay Area, the Warriors have remained adamant they’re not trading D’Angelo Russell despite their 5-23 start. But he’s too good of a player to stay on a team that’s already punted on the season due to injuries. The Timberwolves, who pursued Russell hard in free agency, seem like the right team to change the Warriors’ minds, but Woj reported Sunday night that Golden State is likely to wait until the summer to try to deal Russell. Minnesota is clearly looking for a point guard; it doesn’t appear that Chris Paul will be on the market, so the Wolves could go after Dennis Schröder or, if he’s made available, Kyle Lowry, per Woj.
If a power forward is what you need, the Knicks have plenty to offer. The train wreck in New York has been something to behold this season, but the least the Knicks could do now is clear out minutes for their young players and see what they could get for Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson, and Marcus Morris. (Woj said Sunday night that Morris is a target for the Clippers; he also didn’t rule out the Clippers’ moving Montrezl Harrell, given that Harrell is expected to command a lot of money this summer.) Then again, no one trusts the Knicks to make a smart move at this point. Nikola Vucevic returned to the Orlando lineup Sunday after missing 11 games with an ankle injury. The Magic likely believe they need him to make the playoffs, but for a team full of young guys—and especially frontcourt players—it’s easy to wonder whether the right offer from a contending team (hello, Boston) would finally make them fully focus on their youth.
This early in the season, only about eight teams are resigned to live in the bottom of the standings, but the NBA is wont to throw curveballs when it comes to trades. And come the deadline in February, a few more franchises will likely look in the mirror and realize they’d be better off being sellers, too.
Can Kristaps Porzingis Keep the Mavs Afloat With Luka Doncic Out?
Superman bleeds. Or in this case, he suffers ankle sprains. Not even two minutes into Saturday night’s game against the Miami Heat, Doncic stepped awkwardly on his right ankle as he was driving to the hoop and rolled it.
Oh man. Luka Doncic hobbles to the locker room after turning his ankle on a drive. (Via @FOXSportsHEAT) pic.twitter.com/721VgduzqZ— Will Manso (@WillManso) December 15, 2019
He didn’t return to the game, and though the postgame diagnosis of a moderate ankle sprain was a positive one, it appears he will at least miss “a couple of weeks,” including the Mavs’ upcoming stretch of games against four of the East’s top five teams. Enter Porzingis. Dallas’s no. 2 guy has had a sputtering start to his first season back from ACL surgery. He’s still averaging 16.8 points and a career-high 8.9 rebounds, but his shooting efficiency has been subpar and the Mavericks have yet to really see the Porzingis they traded for. With Luka out, they’ll need Porzingis to fill a much larger role.
Dallas has been on a tear that currently has it projected to be one of the top four teams in the West. But that was largely fueled by Luka’s supernova start to the season. Now the pressure will fall on Porzingis. This could go one of two ways: On the one hand, it could be the boost Porzingis needs. He’s clearly accepted the no. 2 role in the franchise, which is probably better for his future prospects, but still requires some acclimation given that he was the center of attention in New York. This will be a chance to prove he still has that kind of potential in him. On the other hand, if this goes too well, I wonder whether this will change anything about the Luka-KP dynamic once Luka returns. Would Porzingis want to keep a bigger role? And how would Luka respond to that? Given that Luka’s injury doesn’t seem to be too serious, Porzingis may end up getting only a short taste of life without him—and by all accounts, it appears the two are getting along well in their new partnership. Winning certainly helps, and now, at least for a hot second, it’s up to Porzingis to lead the way.
Can the Lakers Stop the Bucks’ 18-Game Winning Streak?
Have you seen the movie Unstoppable? If you haven’t, here’s the premise: A malfunctioning train is flying down the tracks toward a city, with Denzel Washington on board. The whole movie revolves around him trying to figure out a way to stop the train, and that seems like a pretty good metaphor for this NBA season so far. Everyone is trying to stop the Bucks, and so far, no one really has. The Bucks have won 18 games in a row, are 24-3, and have both the best point differential in the league and the best net rating. Just because the loaded Warriors no longer exist and we were supposed to have parity this season doesn’t mean Giannis agreed to that. The Bucks are the juggernaut.
If this were an actual movie, then Thursday would be the climax. The Lakers, also 24-3 and having lost only one game in the last month, head to Milwaukee for the most anticipated matchup of the season. They are the only other team in the league with both a top-five defense and offense, and have looked thoroughly dominant since the season started. Thursday’s game is a possible Finals preview, a joust between Giannis and Anthony Davis, a chess battle between a team centered on one star and another centered on two, LeBron vs. the player who could be the next face of the league—it’s got everything.
Neither team will be quite at full strength for the contest. Eric Bledsoe is out for two weeks with a fibula avulsion fracture, LeBron hurt his elbow over the weekend but played in Sunday’s game against the Hawks, Davis appeared to tweak his ankle on Sunday (though it was said to be nothing serious), and Kyle Kuzma has missed the last three games with an ankle injury. But the main card is still a tantalizing one. This is the best game of the season so far on paper, and I can’t wait to make irrational, extrapolated conclusions off of those 48 minutes. Join me.
What Will the Kings Look Like When De’Aaron Fox Returns?
It is perhaps the most confounding stat of the season: A year after being the third-fastest team in the league, the Kings are currently playing at the slowest pace in the NBA. And it’s sort of working? Yes, a new coach may be part of the reason why, but Luke Walton is also known to like playing fast—his Lakers were the fourth-fastest team in the league last season and second in fast-break points, behind only the Kings. Still, the speed regression has seemed to fit this Kings roster and helped them go 9-8 since Fox went down with an ankle injury over a month ago. This past week, they edged out games against the Rockets, Mavericks, and Thunder, and now they’re expected to get Fox back on Tuesday.
Few players are better suited to playing a fast game than Fox, who is like a lightning rod with the basketball. When he returns, something will have to give, and it’ll be fascinating to see whether Fox adjusts or the Kings do. When you have a clear franchise player on your hands, there’s a strong imperative to cater to his strengths. But to Walton’s credit, this stylistic shift has improved the team’s defense, and if Fox is able to work within this slower approach, there could be long-term benefits to him and his versatility, too.