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The Jazz Are Fine-Tuning As Trade Season Draws Near. Plus, Six Other Observations From Around the NBA.

Brandon Boston Jr.’s quick rise for the Clippers, the Celtics’ existential crisis, and much more

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Wednesday is an important day on the NBA calendar: On December 15, most players who signed new contracts during the offseason are able to be traded, meaning more than 80 percent of the NBA will be tradable. Though most deals don’t happen until we get closer to the February 10 trade deadline, general managers are beginning to have more serious talks. The market is relatively mild right now, with few high-profile players readily available. Still, there are plenty of swaps that could shake up both the championship race and the lottery standings.

With that in mind, here are seven thoughts and observations from around the NBA, including one answer to a question I pulled from my social media mailbag:

1. Do the Experimental Jazz Have Enough?

Rudy Gobert anchors an elite Jazz defense once again, and their offense is wrecking opponents, posting a 117.5 offensive rating, which is by far the highest in the NBA. Per usual during the regular season, the Jazz are filthy.

But to get over the hump in the playoffs, the Jazz are experimenting with smaller lineups to better prepare for teams like the Warriors and Clippers, both of whom have successfully downsized against them. When Gobert is on the bench, Quin Snyder now has two primary options: Plug in Hassan Whiteside to keep a traditional center on the floor, or go with his other Rudy, Rudy Gay, as a small-ball center.

Just like many aging players, Gay has transformed to survive in the league. He’s gone from a 6-foot-8, high-volume-scoring small forward during his prime athletic years to a spot-up 3-point shooter playing the 4 and sometimes the 5 for Utah. Now 35, he retains some quickness to defend on the perimeter and is strong enough to handle some bigs inside.

In 12 games since returning from offseason surgery on his heel, Gay has played 24 of his 228 minutes at the 5, and those lineups play far differently than the Jazz do with Gobert or Whiteside. With Gay at center, the Jazz are switching 40 percent of on-ball screens and 33 percent of handoffs, which is way up from only 13 percent and 10 percent, respectively, when Gobert is on the floor, according to Second Spectrum.

Much like the Bucks used last regular season to get experience with switching on-ball screens, Utah is learning how to play a brand-new style.

Results have been mixed. Utah’s greatest weakness is its lack of perimeter stoppers, and putting Gay in the middle leaves little rim protection on the floor to stop attackers. Teams have also crashed the boards against the small-ball Jazz. But Gay is good positionally and the defensive switching can be an advantageous wrinkle. It also provides a different look on offense, with shooters surrounding the backcourt combinations of Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, and Jordan Clarkson.

In that tiny 24-minute sample with Gay at center, Utah is outscoring teams by two. Playing even might be all the Jazz need to survive non-Gobert minutes. But more than anything, Utah’s actions are indicative of a desire to have this style in their repertoire by the postseason.

Is Gay alone enough for the role? Finding another wing defender like Gay who can play the 4 next to Gobert or Whiteside and also play small-ball center would bolster Utah’s title odds.

If the Jazz explore the trade market, Jerami Grant makes sense as a target if he’d be willing to embrace the role he had in Denver: spot-up shooting and hard-nosed defense, plus sprinkles of the on-ball scoring he does now in Detroit. Grant is currently out with torn ligaments in his right thumb and will be reevaluated in six weeks, but executives around the league don’t expect that to stop the Pistons from listening to offers for him. Closer to the trade deadline, flipping Bojan Bogdanovic and a package involving future picks and youth for Grant would subtract shooting from the Jazz but add significantly to their defense. (And instead of having Grant take touches away from their young core, Detroit could add Bogdanovic’s off-ball shooting and complementary on-ball scoring.)

Acquiring help at wing should be the priority because the window is open for Utah. Gobert is better than ever. After a slow start, Mitchell is back to posting All-Star numbers. And with a greater emphasis on playmaking, Conley is having his most efficient scoring season. The Jazz already do so much well; they just need a little fine-tuning ahead of the deadline.

2. The Clippers Have Found Another Second-Round Steal

Brandon “BJ” Boston Jr. fell to the no. 51 pick following a disappointing freshman season at Kentucky, but now with the Clippers, he’s looking more like the elite high school recruit that some scouts thought would end up a top-five pick.

He averaged 21 points and shot 50 percent from 3 in six G League games before returning to the Clippers and becoming a rotation regular. In NBA games in which he plays at least 20 minutes, he’s averaging 13 points and doing all the same things he did at lower levels. Boston can drain jumpers off the dribble:

At 6-foot-6, he has size and slippery ballhandling skills to get into his jumpers. Consistency was once an issue, but his mechanics and shot selection have been steady. He’s long flashed the ability to be a playmaker, and now he’s learning how to draw the defense before firing on-target passes to teammates.

It’s early, but you rarely see a late second-round pick who just turned 20 years old look this good after two seasons, let alone two months. From Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in the lottery to Terance Mann and Boston in the second round, the Clippers are building a strong track record in the draft. Jerome Robinson is their only recent whiff. With SGA and future picks all flipped for Paul George, Boston gives the Clippers a young player of value that could come into play for trades. But he’ll likely end up a keeper for the Clippers. Maintaining some youth, especially with Kawhi Leonard aging and injury prone, gives them roster balance and upside.

The Clippers are in fifth place in the West because they’re winning games with an elite defense, holding teams to 104.9 points per 100 possessions, good for fourth best in the NBA. What they need is scoring. If Leonard returns in April, nine months after knee surgery, the Clippers will immediately become NBA Finals thr​​eats. And if Boston keeps getting better, he will become the X factor of the postseason.

3. Time to Shake Up the Celtics

One of my most prominent childhood sports memories is Antoine Walker getting traded. Led by Antoine and Paul Pierce, the Celtics were coming off appearances in the East finals and semifinals. Walker was a fan-favorite All-Star who wiggled down the court after making his 3s. But he missed many. And so Danny Ainge’s first big move running the team was dealing Walker away.

Brad Stevens is now in his first full season as president of basketball ops after taking over for Ainge. Stevens made some offseason moves that made sense on paper but haven’t worked out. The Celtics are fighting for a play-in spot, playing a tough-to-watch brand of basketball. And now Stevens is faced with the same question Ainge was nearly two decades ago: How will he make his mark on the franchise?

The Celtics need a dramatic shuffle to the supporting cast. More shooting would be a start. A better playmaker than Marcus Smart would help. Someone who can facilitate, make 3s, and play great defense would be huge. But Lonzo Ball types don’t grow on trees. Instead, the Celtics were hoping one of their two All-Stars, Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown, would blossom into the playmaker they needed. It hasn’t happened. Neither is a high-level passer, which is part of the reason they’re such inefficient isolation shot-creators.

Including last season, 47 players have isolated at least 300 times. Brown ranks seventh worst in points scored per isolation chance and Tatum ranks 11th worst, according to Second Spectrum. Every team with real contending hopes has players who rank near the top of the league in this metric. Tatum and Brown aren’t elite interior finishers or knockdown shooters off the dribble. Should Stevens consider splitting up Tatum and Brown like Ainge once did with Pierce and Walker?

Tatum and Brown are far better players than Walker, more accomplished at similar stages of their careers, and worth their big contracts. And though it feels like they’ve been around forever, Tatum is only 23 and Brown is 25. They can still get better. But Stevens is on the clock to fix the team. After this season, Tatum has only three more guaranteed seasons on his contract. Brown has two. They’ll be recruited to join teams with better odds of winning a title.

Moving one of them, more likely Brown, could lead to a massive return and realign the roster around the remaining star and the incoming players. But who’s the main target: Ben Simmons? Bradley Beal? Domantas Sabonis? CJ McCollum? De’Aaron Fox? The list of realistically acquirable All-Star-caliber players is short. Waiting for the next crop of stars on the move could be far more appealing. Before moving either Brown or Tatum, Stevens should explore changes elsewhere on the roster, by looking at the Celtics’ multiple tradable short-term contracts (Smart, Josh Richardson, Al Horford) and young players who have shown promise (Robert Williams III, Romeo Langford).

Something does need to change, though. Ainge’s recent teams overachieved compared to expectations. Maybe they were even too good too soon for how young the roster was. Ainge brought in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward in the hopes of pushing the Celtics to another level, but both walking away for nothing has led to the dilemma Boston is in now. Ainge once made a statement by trading Antoine. Now you’re up, Brad Stevens.

4. Is Nikola Jokic the MVP Again?

Nikola Jokic was up to more of his playmaking wizardry on Saturday:

Jokic and Aaron Gordon have developed Dune-level prescience with each other. With Michael Porter Jr. out indefinitely after another back surgery and Jamal Murray not due back from a torn ACL until at least February, Gordon has become Jokic’s primary target on cuts.

It’s not just Gordon who levels up when playing alongside Jokic. The Nuggets go from a dominant team with Jokic on the floor (plus-13.4 net rating) to a crappy team without him (minus-15.7). Jokic is following up on his MVP season with an even better one, and is the primary reason Denver is .500 and maintaining a playoff spot in the West.

Jokic is even better on defense. He’s a positional rim protector who doesn’t block many shots but has improved his agility in order to stay in front of opponents and bother shots.

The rapid processing that helps fuel Jokic’s offense now translates on defense. He knows what the opponent is going to do even before they do it, and he’s able to get his hands in the way to contest, swat at the ball, or block shots. Jokic’s coordination is elite, and now he’s in the best condition of his life; together, that’s helped him become a highly productive defender. No one can call him a liability anymore.

Having Jokic means Denver always has a chance to win. He belongs squarely in the MVP race again, no matter what the Nuggets’ record is. If only they had the assets to make a major move for a stronger titl​​e run this season.

5. Hello, James Bouknight!

With LaMelo Ball and Terry Rozier in the NBA’s health and safety protocol, rookie guard James Bouknight has been receiving regular minutes. He floats:

The Hornets drafted Bouknight with the 11th pick hoping that if his skills caught up with his raw athleticism, he and LaMelo could form a jumbo backcourt of guards standing 6-foot-5 or taller.

On Friday against the Kings, Bouknight showed what he could be, tallying 24 points: He hit 3s off the catch, made jumpers off the dribble, and, of course, scored on flights to the rim.

There won’t be a lot of playing time available for Bouknight once the missing starters return. Rozier will play plenty. So will Hayward. Even Cody Martin has carved out a rotation role (and he leads the NBA in 3-point percentage). What the Hornets lack is a center.

Indiana has both Sabonis and Myles Turner on the block, and either would make sense as a target. Turner’s shot-blocking and pick-and-pop ability would be a better fit, though, over any playmaking Sabonis brings. Charlotte could always get aggressive with Houston and target Christian Wood. Options are limited, though. Unless an offer is too good to pass up, the Hornets should be patient and find out what they have in their youth.

6. Showing Love for Lu Dort

Two years ago, in the NBA’s bubble at Disney World, Lu Dort made a name for himself as a rookie by hounding James Harden with relentless on-ball defense and for bricking a ton of 3s until he unloaded 30 points in a Game 7 loss for the Thunder.

Dort was on the map. But suddenly, the Thunder weren’t. Chris Paul left. Aleksej Pokusevski arrived. This season, the limited amount of eyeballs tuning into the Thunder are enthralled by the electric passing of rookie Josh Giddey. Meanwhile, Dort is way better than he was the last time Oklahoma City was in the playoffs.

Through 25 games, Dort is averaging a career-high 17 points on a career-high scoring efficiency while continuing to play lockdown individual defense. He’s now a wrecking ball driving to the basket, like he was as a freshman at Arizona State.

Dort is capable of finishing with power through contact and with finesse on crafty below-the-rim layups. He is flourishing in the pick-and-roll as a ball handler, cutting to the rim, and hitting shots off the dribble.

Though he isn’t highly efficient as a shooter, he has made progress. Dort has made 43.5 percent of his corner 3s since last season. Above the break, he has shot 32 percent from 3 both off the catch and after dribbling. The next step is extending his range for 3s, but right now he gets most of his buckets in the paint.

Dort is the type of player contenders would love to get their hands on. Imagine Dort catching passes for corner 3s off a kick-out by Donovan Mitchell in Utah, running an inverted two-man game with Jokic, or defending a pick-and-roll with Joel Embiid. Dort has all the ingredients of a player who can contribute to a team with championship hopes. But why would the young and rebuilding Thunder trade him?

Dort is only 22, in just his third season, and is already better than Smart, another defense-first guy who was a popular comparison until Dort became a much better scorer. And he still could get much better if his dribble jumper falls more consistently.

Nobody is untouchable, but the Thunder will ask for a lot if teams do come calling. Dort is the type of player who helps shape a team’s culture.

7. Mailbag: State of the Blazers

Q: I’m a Blazers fan hoping to trade CJ McCollum for Ben Simmons. But how does CJ’s injury affect his trade status?—Alex from Portland (via email)

McCollum’s collapsed lung probably won’t keep him out for more than a couple of weeks, maybe a month. So it shouldn’t change how he’s valued leaguewide. A lot of teams don’t like him because of his limitations as a playmaker and defender. There also aren’t many teams that need a guard. But his supporters remember his postseason heroics and see him as a difference-making scorer in the playoffs.

I’m interested in how the Blazers use this time without CJ. Anfernee Simons returned from a sprained ankle on Sunday. Damian Lillard just came back from his worrisome and lingering abdominal problem.

Norman Powell will slide to his natural position at shooting guard, and the Blazers could give more minutes to bigger wings. Nassir Little is playing more. Larry Nance Jr. started ahead of Robert Covington against the Timberwolves, which is a welcome change by head coach Chauncey Billups; Nance is a better on-ball defender and can make plays off the dribble.

Billups has underutilized Nance all season. He’s a Swiss Army knife who can defend across positions and help the offense as a spot-up shooter, roller, or a playmaker.

Running dribble handoffs and pick-and-rolls between Lillard and Nance could lead to easy scoring chances. But they don’t do it enough, hooking up for handoffs and pick-and-rolls a combined 4.8 times per game, according to Second Spectrum. That needs to increase while McCollum is out and touches are available for someone else to assist Lillard.

The Blazers are about to get a glimpse of what life without McCollum would look like if someone with size took his place. And they might end up liking what they see.

To submit a question for next week’s mailbag, tweet me @KevinOConnorNBA. I’ll answer some questions there and one of them will make it into next week’s article. To read last week’s article with seven more thoughts, click here.