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Seven NBA Observations on Trade Chatter, Luka Doncic’s Ceiling, and More

Are the Thunder finally ready to cash in some of those draft picks? Plus, a look at the Lauri Markkanen sweepstakes, the Cavaliers at a crossroads, and Luka reaching a new level.

Getty Images/Associated Press/Ringer illustration

Trade season has tipped off and we’re only a week away from Christmas, the NBA’s unofficial second opening night. With so much action happening around the league, here are seven observations on the Thunder, Luka Doncic’s MVP campaign, and Anthony Davis’s resurgence.

1. Are the Thunder Ready to Make the Leap?

On Saturday, the Oklahoma City Thunder unleashed a 15-6 blitz in the final minutes to topple the reigning champion Denver Nuggets on the road. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander delivered an MVP-caliber performance that included a clutch game-winner, Jalen Williams had 24 points and made big plays down the stretch, while Chet Holmgren dominated defensively with eight blocks. The Thunder’s youth belies their readiness—SGA at 25, J-Dub at 22, Chet at 21—marking this as a potential watershed moment for Oklahoma City’s deep playoff ambitions.

Boasting a 16-8 record overall with a defense and an offense both ranked in the league’s top seven, the Thunder’s success extends beyond their Big Three. They have a roster brimming with talent, like defensive ace Cason Wallace and sharpshooter Isaiah Joe, and they’re all led by one of the NBA’s most astute coaches in Mark Daigneault. But stars lead contenders: Gilgeous-Alexander will once again receive MVP consideration this season, particularly if the Thunder are near the top of the conference, and now he’s flanked by one of the NBA’s best defenders in Holmgren, who put on an absolute master class in Denver:

For the most part, Daigneault had Holmgren defend Aaron Gordon, a 6-foot-8 forward that Chet would sag off of to help on other Nuggets attackers. In the clip above, Holmgren displays quick awareness recognizing Michael Porter Jr. cutting to the basket after making a pass. Lu Dort provides outstanding help by using the rule of verticality, and Holmgren gets his hand on the ball while keeping it in bounds.

Holmgren also swallowed Gordon any time he got in the paint, whether it was via post-up or drive. Usually, pulling a rim protector away from the paint can leave the big prone to getting blown by. But Holmgren is quick-footed laterally as he shows in the clip above by sliding around Jamal Murray. He recovers quickly and perfectly times his right-footed leap to swat away Gordon’s would-be dunk.

Before the season, I went on The Bill Simmons Podcast to discuss Bill’s favorite sleeper of the season: OKC. (I was high on them. He was even higher.) During our podcast, we discussed whether Thunder general manager Sam Presti would exchange some of his draft picks for a star to bolster their title odds immediately. I shared some quotes from Presti that were said during the Thunder’s media day:

“I wouldn’t want to cash in to become average or above average.”

“We don’t really know what we have right now.”

“I don’t think you can make a rational case for it now.”

That was back in September. The Thunder were 40-42 last season. Now they’re on pace to win 55 games and the championship window is wide open. With Gilgeous-Alexander on a standard max deal ($33.4 million), and virtually everyone else on the roster still on their rookie contracts, it could be the perfect moment for Presti to cash in just some of his 15 (!) future first-round picks and 22 future seconds.

On that note, here’s one more quote from Presti on the timing for making a big move: “Perhaps at some point when we have a little more information, the team has demonstrated its capability, played in high-performing games, and we see where our limitations are, potentially.”

So, what are those limitations? The Thunder’s win Saturday showed how effective they can be when Jaylin Williams defended Nikola Jokic, with Holmgren helping off another player. But as good as JayWill is, he’s a bit undersized to handle elite bigs at only 6-foot-9. If Denver is indeed the team that everyone in the West needs to get through, having two bigs is one of the ways to counter.

I wonder whether the Magic would be willing to part with Wendell Carter? Orlando is thriving while Carter is sidelined with a fractured hand, but they’d still ask a lot for him because he’s one of the NBA’s better Jokic defenders and can provide the type of perimeter feel and shooting that JayWill does. The Thunder could also use an upgrade over Josh Giddey, who is a solid playmaker but redundant on a team with so many shot creators already. (He also is the subject of a police investigation, putting his future in question.) Flipping Giddey for a play-finisher would be the ideal scenario: What do the Jazz say if Presti offers a pile of firsts for Lauri Markkanen?

Pretend for a moment Oklahoma City got both Carter and Markkanen before this year’s trade deadline. The Thunder’s top-eight playoff rotation would include Holmgren, Markkanen, and Carter as bigs. Jaylen Williams, Dort, and Joe would be the wings. SGA and Wallace would be the guards. Any five-man combination from those eight could share the floor together, giving Presti the sort of roster loaded with size and skill across positions he’s always envisioned.

Young teams usually don’t contend for championships. But young teams usually aren’t this talented this soon. And front offices rarely have such a bounty of assets. The only question now is, has Presti seen enough to make his move?

2. Let the Lauri Bidding Begin

Speaking of Markkanen: On Friday, Yahoo’s Jake Fischer reported that the Jazz are leaving teams with the impression that Markkanen can be acquired in a trade, though it’s unlikely a move will be made due to the team’s high asking price. That said, here’s what Jazz front office boss Danny Ainge said way back in 2015: “There’s no such thing as untouchables.”

Ainge said this while he was running the Celtics, and it’s still true to this day, which is why former Jazz star Donovan Mitchell is now in Cleveland and Rudy Gobert is in Minnesota. Ainge is willing to trade just about anyone on his roster.

Of course, there is no rush to deal a 26-year-old All-Star with two years remaining on his contract at a team-friendly rate. But with a versatile skill set that’d allow Markkanen to fit on virtually any team, these factors all give him league-wide appeal.

So what’s the line for an acceptable offer? My impression from talking to teams is that it’s something resembling the haul the Jazz received for Mitchell and Gobert: so, five-ish firsts and/or players of comparable value. This is a lot for Markkanen in the sense that he doesn’t have postseason scoring success like Mitchell, or three Defensive Player of the Year trophies like Gobert. As good as Lauri is, he’s made an All-Star team only once and thrived at this level in only one system. But his qualities seem like a fit for virtually any scenario you can imagine: Flanking Bam Adebayo in Miami’s frontcourt, adding a desperate influx of shooting to help Detroit’s young core, replacing Julius Randle in New York, filling open space in Golden State, operating in the two-man game with Tyrese Haliburton in Indiana, mixing in with Houston’s versatile core, thriving off the ball in New Orleans, or completing Oklahoma City’s core.

Utah might determine Markkanen looks best as part of its own future. But with so many teams likely having interest and having the assets to make intriguing offers, we know that Jazz are at least willing to listen.

3. Will the Cavs’ Injuries Lead to a Reset?

The Cavaliers got a double whammy of bad news on Friday night: Darius Garland will be sidelined for multiple weeks with a fractured jaw and Evan Mobley will be out for up to two months after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. Cleveland’s season has been underwhelming as is with a 14-12 record and a negative net rating. And now it’s at risk of falling off the rails with two of its four best players on the mend. But could these setbacks actually be an opportunity disguised for a strategic reset?

The acquisition of Donovan Mitchell last year was a bold move by Cleveland, an attempt to turn a promising young squad into a bona fide contender. But despite Mitchell’s scoring prowess, the Cavs aren’t in the same class as the East’s elites. This is in part due to the overlap Cleveland has with Mitchell and Garland as two smaller guards, and in part due to Mobley’s lack of development on the perimeter making him an unnatural fit next to Jarrett Allen, another non-shooter.

Mobley has attempted only 19 midrange jumpers this season and made just 36.8 percent of them. He’s tried just 10 shots from behind the arc, making only two. In other words, he can’t space the floor. To make matters worse, he also can’t create his own shot efficiently: Mobley has made 8 of 28 shots on post-ups and isolations combined this season, according to Synergy. Compounding all of these issues is the fact he’s having a career-worst season scoring near the rim. Mobley has made just 34.2 percent of shots in the paint, struggling to hit floaters, turnaround jumpers, and leaning layups.

Maybe someday Mobley’s offense will be half as potent as his still-stellar defensive ability. After all, he’s only 22 years old. But these deficiencies matter now because the Cavaliers slammed on the gas by acquiring Mitchell. More was suddenly required from Mobley to make it all work next to Allen, with Garland and Mitchell as his guards. And Cleveland has needed too much too soon from the no. 3 pick in the 2021 draft.

Mitchell is just one season away from potentially reaching free agency, and there is no indication he’d want to re-sign amid the team’s struggles. The Cavaliers should proactively seek trades for him, rather than risk seeing his value decline as free agency approaches. A third of the league could realistically pursue him if the Cavs made him available, and a trade would provide the team with enough assets to recalibrate the timeline around its youngest core pieces, Mobley and Garland. If the Cavaliers make a move, in time they’ll be equipped to take a swing again.

4. We’re Seeing the Best Luka Yet

Luka Doncic is playing better than ever: This season, he’s averaging a career-high 32.7 points on career-best scoring efficiency to go along with 9.1 assists and 8.3 rebounds per game.

On Saturday night, Luka had a 40-point triple-double against Portland, scoring at will from every spot on the floor. Doncic drained dribble-jumper 3s. He uses ball fakes to get into midrange learners and floaters. And the driving force behind his big game was his performance in the paint, which is reflective of his career-best season as a whole.

In the half court, Doncic is making 82.1 percent of his unassisted shots in the restricted area. This is no. 1 in the NBA of the 100 players to attempt the most shots. Better than even Giannis Antetokounmpo. Better than LeBron James. Better than anyone else. Doncic has always ranked near the top of the NBA in at-rim scoring. But this is his first year cracking 80 percent—not even Giannis has done that in his career.

Doncic has always possessed a rare blend of magic touch and power. But this season we’re watching a master of his craft prove he has yet to reach his ceiling. Luka now has a dominant lob threat in Dereck Lively, the rookie center who’s drawing the gaze of defenders any time Luka now rolls to the basket. And with Luka hitting a career-best rate of 3s (37.9 percent), perhaps defenders are forced to respect his shot a little bit more, too. Doncic also hired a nutritionist and physical therapist this offseason, so following last season’s disappointment, he’s bouncing back in his best shape, with a bit of a springier step that helps him around the rim, from range, and on defense.

The only time Doncic has arguably been better than now came in 2022, when he led the Mavericks to the Western Conference finals. On the big stage, Doncic has already proved he can summon his best. This time around, maybe Doncic will show he’s equipped to take his team a step even further.

5. The Resurgence of Anthony Davis

This season, Anthony Davis is posting his best scoring efficiency on post-ups since he joined the Lakers:

2023-24: 1.2 points per post-up
2022-23: 1.06
2021-22: 1.03
2020-21: 1.04
2019-20: 0.96

Going back to his time in New Orleans, his 1.2 points per post-up average would actually rank the best of his entire career, via Synergy.

It’s a little too early in the season to say whether AD has actually made tangible progress as a post scorer, or whether this is just a small sample. But his percentage from the right block is far better than in recent years, and he’s doing an excellent job of sealing off smaller defenders to establish post position right underneath the rim.

If this production continues, then it’ll provide the Lakers with another form of shot creation within their often-sputtering half-court offense. Davis hasn’t found his touch from behind the arc (he’s shooting 33.3 percent this season), but time will tell if he has from the post.

6. Cade It Get Any Worse in Detroit?

Cade Cunningham is only 22 years old. He’s played only 102 games in his NBA career. And his supporting cast, well, sucks. Detroit’s bigs can’t shoot, there’s a lack of reliable options on the wing, and all the team’s guards have overlapping skills. There are a ton of reasons the Pistons have dropped a staggering 23 games in a row, and Cunningham isn’t the main one. But if Cade was as great as some people believe he is, you would expect him to have nights in which he drags his team to victory. And yet, it seems he’s exempt from any blame for this disaster. Can Pistons fans really be sure that he’s a future face of the franchise?

Cunningham has only four games shooting over 50 percent from the field this season. He hasn’t shown he can drain 3s off the catch or off the dribble. He’s also one of the league’s least efficient high-volume players. Improving the team’s spacing would give him far more driving lanes to get to the basket, where he’s at his best. But circumstances should not have to be ideal for a player with his supposed talent to make a team look more competent than this, even at 22.

Cunningham, without a doubt, has the talent to be a good player. At 6-foot-6, the no. 1 pick from the 2021 draft is too talented as a passer and a defender to ever be a non-contributor. But one of the thoughts I can’t get out of my mind is that even if Cunningham dramatically improves during the regular season, this is just who he’s going to end up being during the playoffs. In the postseason, this is what defenses do: They help off weaker shooters, they put their best defender on the primary offensive creator, and they shade another one his way. They force opponents into the shots they want them to take.

So what is Cade’s counter? Where is the evidence that he can get scorching hot using midrange pull-ups and 3s, and methodically drive into the paint for floaters? Can Cade show something soon? I’m getting worried.

7. Checking In on the Ailing Suns

It’s been a strange season for Devin Booker. On the surface, he’s playing the best basketball of his life, averaging career highs across the board: 28.1 points, 8.3 assists, and 5.8 rebounds. Individually, he’s performing like an MVP candidate, and the Suns are great any time he plays, with a plus-7.0 net rating with him on the floor. And yet, there isn’t much to be happy about in Phoenix right now.

The Suns are only 14-12, and their Big Three has played only 24 total minutes together. The defense is a dumpster fire. The offense is a turnover machine. Selfless play has turned into hero ball. The style and passion from past Suns teams feels like a distant memory.

The weak defense is unsurprising. Phoenix built this team to outscore opponents regardless. But one unexpected trend? The Suns are slow. They have the second-slowest possession time in the NBA, according to Inpredictable. Speed of plays doesn’t necessarily correlate with a higher offensive rating, but Phoenix played fast during the preseason and talked a big game about wanting to play quicker than it did during the Chris Paul era. Could the Suns use another shot creator in case Bradley Beal (who is sidelined once again) can’t get healthy? Sure. The issue is that Nassir Little is the most valuable young player on the team and Phoenix can’t trade any of its future first-round picks. In the Suns’ empty cupboard are second-rounders in 2024, 2026, and 2029, and two in 2028. There is little ammunition to improve. The Suns will have to get it done with what they already have.

All that said, it’s tough to judge the Suns until we see the vision that the franchise actually had with a trio of healthy All-Stars. The plan was to have at least one of them on the floor at all times. But durability was a preexisting concern for Kevin Durant, who is 35 years old and has a long injury history. And Beal hasn’t been the healthiest in recent years, either. Following an extended absence due to a back problem, Beal sprained his ankle during his third game back on Friday. It looks like we’ll have to wait a little longer to see the Suns at full force.