Making sense of the Dion Waiters trade, for everyone involved

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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.

Knicks’ Obi Toppin out at least 2-3 weeks with knee fracture

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Obi Toppin is a fan favorite and Knicks faithful were hoping to see more of him as the season progresses.

However, they are not going to see any of him for at least the next 2-3 weeks due to a fractured knee, the team announced.

Toppin suffered the injury in New York’s win Wednesday over Atlanta, the same game that saw Dejounte Murray sprain his ankle leading him to be out for a few weeks.

Toppin — the reigning All-Star Weekend Slam Dunk contest champion — is averaging 7.7 points in 25 games off the bench. With him out, coach Tom Thibodeau suggested he could lean more on RJ Barrett, asking him to play up at the four.

Report: Zach LaVine not available for trade from Bulls

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Front offices of potential contenders from Los Angeles to Philadelphia have their eyes on the Chicago Bulls — will the struggling Bulls pivot to chase Victor Wembanyama and the top of the lottery, making them sellers at the trade deadline? Teams have interest in Chicago’s three stars: Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic.

Except just-extended LaVine isn’t currently available, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said Wednesday on his network’s pregame show discussing the Knicks.

“The Knicks will be watching Chicago. Is Zach LaVine a player who before the deadline possibly can become available? He certainly isn’t now.”

Chicago is not yet ready to pivot to tanking, so none of its stars are truly available. That said, the Bulls don’t look like a playoff team, they miss Lonzo Ball, and even if things do come together where do they stand in the East hierarchy? If the Bulls do become sellers, they aren’t going to tear this team down to the studs, it would likely be trading just one star. Possibly a second if the offer was strong enough.

LaVine — who signed a five-year, $215 million extension this past summer — is the least likely to be available, league sources have told NBC Sports. The expectation is that Vucevic would be the Bull first made available if the Bulls decide to start seriously listening to offers. And that remains an “if.”

That said, front offices around the league have their eyes trained on Chicago.

Dejounte Murray added to growing Hawks injury report, out 2-3 weeks with sprained ankle

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John Collins is out for at least another week with a sprained ankle. DeAndre Hunter has been out with a strained hip flexor.

Now you can add Dejounte Murray to the Hawks’ growing injury report, he is out at least 2-3 weeks with a sprained ankle, Shams Charania and Sam Amick of The Athletic report.

The injury happened on a closeout from RJ Barrett of the Knicks.

The Hawks have already had chemistry and fit issues this season, and missing key players for an extended period only exacerbates the problem. Atlanta looked flat getting their doors blown off by the Knicks Wednesday night, 113-89, a game that added to a string where they have lost 5-of-7. Now they will have to find a way to right the ship without their second-best playmaker.

There also is an update on the Hawks’ play-by-play announcer Bob Rathbun.

NBA, WNBA players react to news Brittney Griner coming home

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Brittney Griner is finally coming home.

The WNBA and USA Basketball star has spent 10 months in Russian prisons — including being convicted and sent to a Russian penal colony — for having vape canisters with small amounts of cannabis oil in her luggage as she went through Russian airport security back in February. She became a political pawn in the tensions between the United States and Russia, mostly surrounding Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, and was freed via a prisoner swap announced Thursday.

The basketball world — WNBA players in particular — had worked to keep her name front and not let Griner be forgotten during this ordeal, pushing President Joe Biden and the government to reach a deal. With the news Griner was freed, NBA and WNBA players took to social media to react.

“Brittney has had to endure an unimaginable situation and we’re thrilled that she is on her way home to her family and friends,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “We thank the members of the NBA and WNBA community who never wavered in their efforts to raise awareness of Brittney’s unjust circumstances.”

“We are overwhelmed with relief and gratitude that our sister Brittney Griner is finally coming home,” the NBPA said in a statement. “Her strength and courage throughout this last year have been truly remarkable, as have the efforts of her wife Cherelle, our WNBPA sisters, Terri Jackson and the WNBPA staff, who have been relentless in their call to bring Brittney home. We know this homecoming would not have been possible without their unwavering support and continued work to keep BG always top of mind, and our players are honored to have contributed to those efforts. While this is a celebratory moment for our sisters and us, we must not forget the other political prisoners who remain in dire circumstances all over the world. These individuals must be remembered and fought for every single day as BG was so that they too can have this moment. Welcome home Brittney, we are so happy to have you back! #WeAreBG”