Change is in the air, or is it chaos?
The number of players who could change teams this off-season may transform the entire complexion of the league. Before the draft the New Orleans Pelicans moved all-world center, Anthony Davis, to the Los Angles Lakers for a trio of players, not including Kyle Kuzma. The draft will bring a few exciting players into the league, such as Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, but the movements in free agency will take center stage. The free agents that could be on the move include two-time NBA Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard, two-time Finals MVP, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler, Khris Middleton, Nikola Vucevic and DeMarcus Cousins.
Orlando Magic Follies
In Orlando, the biggest question mark is All-Star center Nikola Vucevic. Vucevic has been a prolific scorer and rebounder in eight years out of USC. This year Vucevic averaged 20 points and 12 rebounds per game. He has improved his playmaking every year including this year when he averaged nearly 4 assists per game. At 28 he would seem to be a highly desirable big man, but his defense and toughness have been called into question.
If the Magic wanted to keep Vucevic they should have signed him last year,when they may have been able to get a discount. Instead they have used the last two drafts to bring in possible replacements.
They have added FSU standout forward Jonathan Isaac and center Mohamed Bamba from the University of Texas. Now, Vucevic is an unrestricted free agent. The Magic say they want him and the Sacramento Kings say they don’t. Vucevic has said he would like to stay in Orlando, but he, and team management, have emphasized negotiations are not supposed to begin until July 1, 2019. But that didn’t stop the Lakers from announcing a trade for Anthony Davis or the Jazz from arranging a trade for Mike Conley.
There have been rumors that the Hawks or Celtics could pursue Vucevic. The consensus is Orlando is willing to keep him, but not willing to pay much more than he’s currently earning. At $12 million a year Vucevic is making less than small forward Evan Fournier. He’s likely worth far more on the open market despite his defensive shortcomings. The Magic may decide it’s better to pay less than $9 million combined for Bamba and Isaac, rather than keeping Vucevic.
Boston Celtics Dreams
The Celtics hunger for Vucevic may have grown after power forward Al Horford opted out of his $30 million player option to at least test the free agent market. Vucevic and Horford have similar games, with Vucevic providing more scoring and Horford supplying more defense and senior team leadership.
Alternatively, the Celtics could consider Milwaukee Bucks All-Star forward Khris Middleton who averaged 18 points 6 rebounds and 4 assists this past season. His numbers are not eye popping but he had to share the rock with Giannas Atetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe and Malcom Brogdon. He was to set to make $13 million and eligible to make up to $35 million, which would make him as expensive as Horford, although Middleton is younger at 27. Alternatively, Julius Randle, who has opted out of his player option in New Orleans, may provide a better, younger and cheaper replacement for Horford. He’s only 24 and making just $9 million this past year, although he’s expecting to make considerably more after another great year.
Randle’s scoring has improved every year and his stat line includes more than 21 points 8 rebounds and 3 assists a game. He’s can also provide solid defense inside. Additionally, the Celtics need a pivot man that can play defense in the center position and add punch on offense. Aron Baynes is clearly limited on offense and rookie, Robert Williams, is a long way from developing. Anthony Davis would have been an ideal fit, but he has gone west to the emerging evil empire of the Lakers.
They need a center with the stopping ability to slowdown the league’s big men like Davis, Giannas Atetokounmpo, Joel Embid, Kevin Durant and Nikola Jokic. Free agents and established defenders in the paint, like Jonas Valanciunas or DeAndre Jordan might be a good match for the Celtics. Jordan has a career average of 10.9 rebounds a game and led the league twice in rebounding including 15 a game in 2014. Valanciunas is developing into a player who averages close to 10 rebounds a game and has more offensive upside than Jordan or Baynes. Jordan is making $22 million and Valanciunas is earning $17 million a year and each had one year left on their contract. They are expected to reject these options seeking higher salaries and long-term contracts.
At three years younger than Jordan, Valanciunas may be the better and more affordable option. This will be critical if the Celtics chose to keep Horford or buy an expensive replacement. Reportedly, the Celtics will be able to clear up $33 million in cap space for next year. That may allow them to add Randle and Jordan. This may provide the best combination of offense and defense, we well as youth and experience, if their contracts can be kept around their current value. But Randle is looking to get paid. Therefore, the best case for the Celtics maybe a combination of Randle and Valanciunas, which would provide a younger lineup with more offensive upside and little defensive downside.
The Heat is Gone
The Miami Heat can’t make the playoffs with the current lineup and can’t trade the player that is putting them over the salary cap – Hassan Whiteside.Whiteside has been an exceptional center. He’s a big man with true center size and height. He led the league with nearly 4 blocks in 2016 and more than 14 rebounds a game in 2015. 2015 was the last year the Heat made its fourth consecutive appearance in the NBA Finals. They have not been back since. Unfortunately, he is an old school center that plays with his back to the basket and scores most of his points inside the paint. The NBA in general, and now the Heat in particular, are moving away from a game with this type of center. The more modern centers are the Timberwolves Karl Anthony Towns and the Sixers Joel Embid, who can make mid-range jump shots and defend outside of the lane.