The Extra Pass: Assessing Trade Value (Southwest Division)

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The Extra Pass is a new daily column that’s designed to give you a better look at a theme, team, player or scheme. We’ve looked at the Northwest Division and Pacific Division, so let’s finish up the Western Conference with the Southwest Division.

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San Antonio Spurs33-11, 1st in Southwest Division, $988,000 short of tax

Off-Limits: Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard

Nothing new here. You can most likely add Tiago Splitter to this list as well — replacing his size and production with someone on a better contract is close to impossible, and the Spurs have other assets to dangle if they want to make a big move.

Most likely to be dealt: PF DeJuan Blair, ($1 million/1 year)

It’s no secret that the Spurs have been shopping DeJuan Blair for quite some time. With his contract expiring at the end of this season, they’ll be looking to get something — anything — in return. If the Spurs want to a make a move that nets them actual talent right now, Stephen Jackson’s $10 million dollar expiring deal could provide cap relief for a team looking to trade a player on a longer contract.

Player to target: PF Gustavo Ayon, Orlando Magic

Apologies to Matt Bonner and Boris Diaw, but the Spurs could use some real size defensively. Ayon just feels like a Spurs player — he’s a great passer, an excellent cutter, and he understands spacing. He’s one of those guys we’ll really start to appreciate once he gets on a winning team.

Chances of a deal: Low

Blair would likely already be gone if he could be dealt for anything of value. As for the rest of the roster, San Antonio could be a sneaky player in free agency if Manu Ginobili comes back at a reasonable price this offseason. After making some shakeups last year, the Spurs seem likely to sit this deadline out and wait until the summer.

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Memphis Grizzlies: 26-14, 2nd in Southwest Division, roughly $2 million under the tax

Off-Limits: No one

After gutting their bench by trading Marreese Speights, Wayne Ellington, Josh Selby and a future first round pick just to get under the tax, the Grizzlies will almost definitely roll with their core for now. That said, Memphis is on an unsustainable path, and eventually they’ll need to trade Rudy Gay (or someone else) to get under the tax going forward. If someone bowls them over with an offer for any player on the roster, they’ll still listen.

Most likely to be dealt: SF Rudy Gay, ($16 million/3 years)

The Grizzlies will almost definitely stay put and ride out the rest of the season, but it’s basically only a matter of time before Gay gets shipped out. Now that they’re under the tax, selling whatever’s left of their bench (Bayless, Arthur) wouldn’t make any sense.

Player to target: The best the D-League has to offer

The Grizzlies will likely rely on D-League call-ups and minimum free agents from here on out, based mostly on the fact that they can’t add substantial salary if they want to stay under the tax.

Chances of a deal: Very Low

Unless they shockingly move a big piece, they’ve accomplished their goal of getting under the tax.

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Houston Rockets: 22-21, 3rd in the Southwest, $18 million short of tax

Off-Limits: James Harden, Chandler Parsons

Harden is already a star, and Parsons is set to make less than a million dollars over the next three seasons. Rockets GM Daryl Morey recognizes the value of that, and although teams may come knocking, he’s a cheap, productive building block going forward.

Most likely to be dealt: SF Carlos Delfino, ($3 million/2 years)

Crazy as it sounds, Delfino has the fourth largest contract on the team at just $3 million a year, which means if Houston wants to do anything big, they’ll likely need his deal to match salaries. Delfino is shooting nearly 39 percent from behind the arc this season so the Rockets likely don’t want to trade him, but their hand might be forced if they target a big piece.

Player to target: PF Josh Smith, Atlanta Hawks

Is it worth forfeiting assets to woo a player for a short rental before they hit free agency? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s something the Rockets have to be considering with their hole at power forward and their struggles all year long on the defensive end. Pairing Smith’s athleticism at the 4 with Houston’s fast pace style seems like a match made in heaven, but it all depends on what Atlanta’s asking price is. That said, Atlanta should want to rebuild, and Houston has an enticing package of young frontcourt talent to offer.

Chances of a deal: High

Houston has to address their 19th ranked defense if they want to be taken seriously as a contender, and although waiting out Josh Smith or Dwight Howard to hit free agency this offseason may be the correct big move, there should be a variety of little deals available for Houston given their cap space. Just look how that worked out for Cleveland.

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Dallas Mavericks18-24, 4th in Southwest Division, $10 million short of tax

Off-Limits: Dirk Nowitzki

Mark Cuban has said he won’t trade Nowitzki, and Dirk has a full no trade clause anyway. O.J. Mayo represents great value on his $4 million dollar deal, but he may be the only real attractive bait for opposing teams.

Most likely to be dealt: PG Darren Collison, ($2.3 million, 1 year)

The Mavericks and Rick Carlisle clearly aren’t big believers in Collison, as they regularly opt for Mike James down the stretch of games instead. Collison isn’t a starting point guard in the league, but he could serve as a capable backup somewhere.

Player to target: C DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings

The Kings may be having a blowout sale on their roster, and the Bank of Cuban just may want to purchase a few assets on the cheap. Add in that getting a great center is Cuban’s Moby Dick, and the Mavericks could make a very convincing offer for Cousins based around alleviation of long-term salaries. A Dirk-DeMarcus frontcourt pairing would truly be fascinating to watch.

Chances of a deal: Very High

The Mavericks want to get Dirk some help in his last few years, and being a known buyer when teams are in fear of the tax that’s looming should grease the wheels a little bit. It’s hard to imagine the Mavs not making a move at the deadline.

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New Orleans Hornets: 14-27, Last in Southwest Division, $6 million short of the tax

Off-Limits: Anthony Davis

Davis is a given, but it’s probably safe to pencil in Ryan Anderson and Jason Smith for now as well. Eric Gordon is likely available, but if he can stay healthy and if the Hornets keep rolling, he’ll be much harder to have conversations about.

Most likely to be dealt: SF Al-Farouq Aminu, ($2.9 million, 1 year)

The Hornets oddly declined to pick up the option on Al-Farouq Aminu for next season, making him a free agent after this year. If a team were interested in taking a flier on the 22-year-old forward, it probably wouldn’t take much to pry him free. Although Aminu’s offensive game is still raw, he’s a terror in transition. The slow, grind-it-out pace of head coach Monty Williams doesn’t do him any favors. It would be fun to see a young, fast team like Charlotte take a chance on Aminu’s defensive potential.

Player to target: SG Anthony Morrow, Atlanta Hawks

How about an Aminu for Morrow swap? Aminu gets to go back home to Georgia where he’ll help fill Atlanta’s void at the 3. Anthony Morrow goes to New Orleans for a shot at more playing time (if he can’t beat out Austin Rivers and Roger Mason, he doesn’t deserve it) and the chance to prove he’s one of the most underutilized pure shooters in all of basketball. I’m a fan of surrounding Anthony Davis with as many shooters as humanly possible.

Chances of a deal: Low

It might just be a vibe, but I get the sense New Orleans is perfectly happy letting their core gel, regardless of what’s going on in the standings. Maybe that’s smart. Until Gordon, Davis and Anderson play with each other more, it’s hard to get a sense of what they’ll need next to them going forward.

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We’ll hit the Eastern Conference next week, but check back tomorrow for analysis on how a few All-Stars have changed the pick-and-roll.

Celtics GM Danny Ainge: “Who doesn’t want Isaiah Thomas on their team?”

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Isaiah Thomas is the best and most popular Celtics player, leading his team to the No. 1 seed in the East and the Eastern Conference Finals — both significant steps forward for an up-and-coming team.

Yet, from the moment the Warriors landed the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, the talk about Thomas has been about his future with the Celtics: If/when they draft Markelle Fultz, will the Celtics want to pay Thomas max or near max money next summer? Do they want to be locked into four or five years with an undersized guard who will start that contract at age 29? Do they extend him this summer at a likely better price? Trade him?

Celtics GM Danny Ainge doesn’t understand all the talk. He certainly didn’t sound like someone looking to trade Thomas this summer speaking to Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald.

“All I’m saying is those are things I have to worry about that even I don’t like to think about. And I know that those are going to be difficult decisions at some point. But we want to keep Isaiah.

“All I know is that he’s had an amazing year, and who doesn’t want Isaiah Thomas on their team? Like, you’ve got to be kidding me…

“Why do the fans need to worry about how much money he makes?” he said. “I can understand if Isaiah and his wife and his agent are worried about that, but I don’t understand why that’s a conversation that needs to be had in the media.”

Two things I want to unpack from all that. First, that’s a “get off my lawn” take from Ainge that completely misses the mark with where sports fandom online has shifted. It’s not that he’s wrong at the core of his argument — we all should appreciate the season Thomas just had, Celtics’ fans in particular. Thomas is a joy to watch play and one of the good guys in the league on top of it. Name anyone in the NBA who has gotten more out of his natural abilities than Thomas — the man has put in the work to rise way past expectations. He needs to be appreciated and lauded for that.

But here’s the thing: Fans more than ever like to play GM, and they now have the tools to understand the tough financial decisions that fall on Ainge and others in his shoes. Let me explain it this way: The NBA Finals start June 1, but as a website, the NBC NBA page will draw way more traffic around the NBA Draft at the end of the month, then free agency in July will blow that away. Always does. Player movement — including both rumors of trades and talk of free agents and moves teams should make — is a much bigger draw than the games themselves. That’s not just the NBA, it’s true of the NFL and MLB and NHL and the Barclays’ English Premiere League and on down the line.

Second, Ainge may not like the speculation, but the questions are valid — he and the Celtics have some hard decisions coming up. At the core of them is the question of patience: Push their assets into the middle of the table now, get a couple of players ready to win next season, and make a run at LeBron James and the Cavaliers, or be patient and build to be better than Cleveland in three years (then sustain that for five or more years beyond that)? Ainge has been on the patient side of that equation from the start, and likely will be again — don’t expect him to trade that No. 1 pick or do anything but bring Thomas back. He can be a decision for the summer of 2018.

Then again, he has shopped Thomas before. Ainge is as good or better than any GM in the league of keeping his cards close to his vest, he’s impossible to read.

That said, the smart money is on him being patient. There’s no need to trade Thomas now, that’s the kind of rash overreaction that got the Knicks where they are over the last decade plus. Ainge can wait things out.

 

Adding Durant and thinking dynasty, it’s championship or bust for Warriors’ legacy

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The Golden State Warriors have been the best team in the NBA for three seasons now. That’s not my opinion, that’s LeBron James‘ — here is what he said after advancing to his seventh straight NBA Finals.

“That’s been the best team in our league the last three years, and they added an unbelievable player in Kevin Durant this year, so that makes it even more difficult.”

Adding Durant did make them more difficult to beat, but it also added to the Warriors’ burden — after a 67-win season and a historic 12-0 sweep into the Finals, the series that their season will be judged on is the one still to be played. They may as well be 0-0 because the second they added Durant it was championship or bust in terms of how they want to be seen.

Win and a pattern of dominance over years starts to come into focus, they will have a couple rings and beaten LeBron — who will go down as one of the all-time greats in his own right — to get them. Lose and this season will be viewed as another failure.

The Warriors want us to look back on them in 10-15 years and see a dynasty. They talked quietly about it last season during their chase for 73 wins — they saw that as a part of their resume as one of the greatest teams of all time. That’s part of the reason for the push last year. They, like LeBron, are chasing the ghosts of greatness at this point, and the Warriors had a Jordan record in their sights.

Regular season marks are nice, but in the NBA the great teams’ legacies are built around championships. Plural. If you’re going to go down as one of the dominant teams of an era — like the Shaq/Kobe Lakers, or Jordan’s Bulls, or the Celtics and Lakers of the ’80s, etc. — there needs to multiple rings on fingers. The Warriors have one, but their historic season unraveled last year when a combination of LeBron’s utter dominance, Draymond Green‘s suspension, Andrew Bogut’s injury (that one was underrated as an issue) all came together to snatch victory from their hands (and help cement LeBron’sa legacy).

The Warriors need the 2017 title for their legacy.

Not just the team, but the legacies of Warriors players will be impacted by this series. Injured or worn down or just in a shooting slump (or, most likely, a combination of the three), Stephen Curry struggled defensively and was outplayed by LeBron last Finals when the Warriors needed him. Curry has been fantastic through these playoffs, but like the team he will be judged as much or more for the games to come than the ones already played. Fair or not.  Can Green keep his head about him when LeBron pushes his buttons? Durant is back on the Finals stage, will he rise to that moment?

The championship or bust mentality is too often the prism through which fans — and media — view sports. It’s unfortunate because it clouds the joy of the game itself, the growth of players, of guys doing the unexpected and rising to heights we did not expect from them. Isaiah Thomas‘ brilliant season in Boston is not diminished because it didn’t end in a ring, to use one easy example. But there are hundreds more like that around the league. Championship or bust blinds people to the little things that can make the game joyous.

However, the Warriors have put themselves in a different place. They are chasing legends. They have the wins and the statistics to make a case, more importantly, they also have a style of play being copied (even by college teams) and is changing how the game is played. That is a hallmark greatness.

Now they need the rings to go with it. They need more than one, but it starts with this year’s title — it is championship or bust for them. Fair or not. If the Warriors want to be mentioned in the pantheon of all-time greats, it will take the 2017 title to be part of it.

Underdog Cavs insist they have plenty of bite for Finals

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — They are defending champions and decided underdogs.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, however, say they aren’t using any snubs to get ready for the NBA Finals.

Set for a third straight championship matchup against Golden State, the Cavs are ignoring the Las Vegas odds makers and others who don’t think they have a shot at beating Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant & Co.

Cavs coach Tyronn Lue doesn’t feel his team needs the underdog label for inspiration, saying being in the NBA Finals is “enough motivation alone.”

Kevin Love was reminded that Warriors forward Draymond Green said earlier this season that he wants to “destroy and annihilate” the Cavs in the Finals. Says Love said: “He wanted us, and he has us starting next Thursday.”

 

Check out Kawhi Leonard’s highlights from this past season (VIDEO)

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Russell Westbrook and James Harden were putting up the bigger numbers, they were drawing more attention. And while MVP is a regular season award, nobody has boosted their MVP credentials more in the postseason than Kawhi Leonard.

He had a really impressive regular season, too. Since we’re on a long break between games, enjoy the highlights of Leonard’s season. He may enter next season as the MVP favorite.