Making sense of the Dion Waiters trade, for everyone involved

30 Comments

What a weird night. Dion Waiters began Monday evening listed in the starting lineup in his hometown of Philadelphia, and ended it as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder. J.R. Smith is now on the Cavaliers. The Knicks actually won a trade, which is the most improbable part of all. It’s still hard to believe last night’s three-team deal actually happened, but it actually makes a lot of sense for everyone involved—although it’s not without its risks.

For the Knicks, there’s no real downside. Phil Jackson wanted J.R. Smith gone for cultural reasons, and he was able to find a taker without taking back any guaranteed money. Losing Iman Shumpert isn’t ideal, but it was basically clear at this point that he wasn’t interested in re-signing with the Knicks this summer, and the Knicks weren’t really set on bringing him back. He’s the best player involved in this trade, but if the decision had already been made that he wasn’t a part of their future, giving him up is a small price to pay to unload Smith. The Knicks took back a bunch of minor contracts and a 2019 second-round pick (it’s still weird anytime the Knicks get a pick in a trade) and added $7 million to their cap space this upcoming summer, which will be approaching $30 million once Amar’e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani come off the books. This season was a lost cause anyway, and they should end up with a top-five lottery pick to help rebuild alongside all their cap room and a hopefully rejuvenated Carmelo Anthony. The Zen Master did well here.

For the Cavs, this deal hinges on Smith. Shumpert is a terrific get, instantly becoming the best perimeter defender on the team (since LeBron James has taken several steps back on that end over the last couple years). But if James and David Blatt couldn’t stand Waiters, they basically brought in an older, more set-in-his-ways version of the same player in Smith. For all his faults, Waiters is at least only 23 and, theoretically, can be molded into a more team-oriented player. The 29-year-old Smith is what he is as a player and a personality. Maybe he’ll be motivated being on a good team after a season-plus on a Knicks team that was a disaster on every level, on and off the court. Maybe James will be able to get through to him and make him more of a team player.

This is all possible. But as a player, Smith is similar to Waiters, and if he’s not getting the minutes and touches he wants (which he shouldn’t on a team with LeBron, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love), he might be disgruntled, which wouldn’t be great for the locker room. If the Cavs are planning to buy him out (unlikely) or flip him at the deadline (maybe, if they can find a taker), this trade is a huge win for them. If they’re keeping him, it becomes more high-risk/high-reward. This team still needs a real rim protector, and this trade doesn’t immediately put them on the level of the Chicago/Toronto/Atlanta/Washington tier of contenders in the Eastern Conference. But things couldn’t get much worse than they were already, and it’s worth the gamble to see if getting Waiters out helps.

The most intriguing part of the deal is Waiters’ fit in Oklahoma City. In Sam Presti’s mind, Waiters is a replacement for James Harden—the Thunder have lacked that instant scorer off the bench since trading the former Sixth Man of the Year, who has turned into a superstar and MVP candidate in Houston. They needed depth, and they got it without giving that much up. Reggie Jackson was initially reported as being involved in the deal, and giving him up would have been a disaster. The most Presti gave up was a protected first-round pick going to Cleveland, which he wasn’t going to use anyway. So from an asset standpoint, this is fine.

The success of this trade hinges on Waiters’ willingness to buy into the Thunder culture. They have a clearly defined hierarchy of talent, with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook at the top, and then Serge Ibaka, and then everyone else. If Waiters knows his place, it could be a great fit. He was demanding the ball on a team with James, Irving and Love, but he’s been on the Cavaliers longer than two of those players have; this Thunder core, on the other hand, has been to the Finals together, with this coach, and if Waiters doesn’t buy in, he won’t play. And if he doesn’t play, or it doesn’t fit, that could be a disaster for a famously close-knit locker room. With Durant hitting free agency in two years, and Westbrook and Ibaka in three, bringing in a personality like Waiters is a risk. But a common criticism of Presti since the Harden trade is that he doesn’t swing for the fences to bring in talent, and he certainly did that here. Whether the gamble will pay off remains to be seen.

Either way, it will be impossible to evaluate this trade overnight. The Knicks’ perspective is pretty cut-and-dried—they’ve given up on this season and the trade was a salary dump for them. The Cavs and Thunder brought in risky talents with the chance to either save their seasons or derail them. We will see which it is.

Karl-Anthony Towns helped off court after non-contact calf injury

0 Comments

Hopefully this is not as bad as it looks.

Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony was trying to run back upcourt and went to the ground — without contact — grabbing his knee and calf. He had to be helped off the court.

The Timberwolves officially ruled Towns out for the rest of the night with a calf strain.

A right calf strain would be the best possible outcome, but an MRI will provide more details in the next 24 hours. This had the markings of something much worse, but ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports optimism that Towns avoided something serious.

Towns is averaging 214 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his numbers are off this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers, down from 39.3% for his career — as he tries to adjust to playing next to Rudy Gobert, he’s still one of the game’s elite big men.

The Wizards went on to beat the Timberwolves 142-127 behind 41 from Kristaps Porzingis.

Suns promote GM James Jones to to President of Basketball Operations

Phoenix Suns Open Practice
Barry Gossage / NBAE via Getty Images
0 Comments

James Jones put together the roster that took the Suns to the Finals two seasons ago and had the best record in the NBA last season (64 wins). At 13-6, the Suns sit atop the Western Conference this season.

The Suns have rewarded Jones, giving him the title of President of Basketball Operations on top of GM.

“In the nearly 15 years I have known James, he has excelled in every role he performed, from player to NBPA Treasurer to his roles in our front office, most recently as general manager,” Suns interim Governor Sam Garvin said. “James has the unique ability to create and lead high-performing teams in basketball operations and his commitment to collaborating with our business side, including at the C-level with partners like PayPal and Verizon, is second to none. We are fortunate for his contributions across the organization and this promotion recognizes his commitment to excellence.”

Jones moved into the Suns’ front office in 2017 at the end of a 14-year playing career, then became GM in 2019. The move gives Jones a little more stability during the sale of the franchise. Not that the new owner would come in and fire a successful GM.

“I am grateful for the privilege to work with and support the players, staff and employees of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury,” Jones said in a statement. “The collective efforts of our business and basketball operations have allowed us to provide an amazing atmosphere and best-in-class experience for our fans and community. I remain excited about and dedicated to driving success for our Teams on and off the court.”

Jones has made several moves that set the culture in Phoenix, including hiring Monty Williams as coach then, after an undefeated run in the bubble (that left Phoenix just out of the playoffs), he brought in Chris Paul to take charge at the point.

Report: Leaders in Lakers’ locker room think team ‘only a couple of players away’ from contending

0 Comments

There’s a sense of optimism around the Lakers: They have won 5-of-6 and are expected to have both Anthony Davis and LeBron James healthy Monday night, plus Russell Westbrook has found a role and comfort level off the bench and other players are settling into roles. They may be 7-11, but it’s early enough there is a sense this could be turned around.

That is echoed by “locker room leaders” who think the team is just a couple of players away from being a contender in the West (where no team has pulled away), reports Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

There is belief shared by leaders in the Lakers’ locker room, sources said, that the team is only a couple of players away from turning this group into a legitimate contender. But acquiring the right players could take multiple trades.

Let’s unpack all of this.

• “Leaders in the Lakers’ locker room” means LeBron and Davis (both repped by Rich Paul). Let’s not pretend it’s anything else.

• If the Lakers don’t make a move to significantly upgrade the roster, how unhappy will those leaders become? How disruptive would that be?

• It is no coincidence that McMenamin’s report comes the day the Lakers face the Pacers, a team they went deep into conversations with this summer on a Myles Turner/Buddy Hield trade, but Los Angeles GM Rob Pelinka ultimately would not put both available Lakers’ first-round picks (2027 and 2029) in the deal and it fell apart. Turner said the Lakers should “take a hard look” at trading for him. The thing is, the Pacers are now 11-8, not tanking for Victor Wembanyama but instead thinking playoffs, so are they going to trade their elite rim protector and sharpshooter away? Not likely. At least not without an overwhelming offer, and the Lakers’ two picks may not get there anymore.

• While Westbrook has found a comfort level coming off the bench (and not sharing the court as much with LeBron), he is still a $47.1 million contract that no team is trading for without sweeteners. To use NBA parlance, he is still a negative value contract, even if it feels less negative than a month ago.

• Are the Lakers really a couple of players away from contending? While they have won 5-of-6, three of those five wins came against the tanking Spurs, the others were against the so-injured-they-might-as-well-be-tanking Pistons, and the Nets before Kyrie Irving returned. The Lakers did what they needed to do and thrived in a soft part of the schedule, but that schedule is about to turn and give the Lakers a reality check on where they really stand. After the Pacers, it’s the Trail Blazers (likely still without Damian Lillard), then an East Coast road trip that includes the Bucks, Cavaliers, Raptors and 76ers. The next couple of weeks will be a better marker for where the Lakers stand, and if they can build off of the past couple of weeks.

Dallas Mavericks near agreement to sign Kemba Walker

Oklahoma City Thunder v New York Knicks
Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images
0 Comments

Looking for help spacing the floor and with secondary shot creation behind Luka Doncic, the Dallas Mavericks are turning to Kemba Walker.

Marc Stein was first with the news the sides were close to a deal, but since then multiple reports — plus comments from team owner Mark Cuban — confirmed it is happening.

This will be a veteran minimum contract (all the over-the-cap Mavericks can offer). To create the roster spot, the Mavericks will waive Facundo Campazzo, who was signed a few weeks ago and has barely touched the court for the team.

Walker averaged 11.6 points and 3.5 assists a game playing solidly in stretches for the Knicks last season, but the concern was his staying on the court — he appeared in just 37 games due to ongoing knee problems. Walker spent the offseason working on getting past those, but the Knicks traded him to Detroit for picks, but the Pistons were stacked at the point guard spot (at least before the season and injuries hit Cade Cunningham), so they bought out his $9.2 million for this season.

Walker worked to convince teams he still had plenty in the tank, but it was always going to take a situation where a team reached a certain level of desperation. Enter the Mavericks.