Report: Trail Blazers trading C.J. McCollum, Larry Nance Jr. to Pelicans

C.J. McCollum and Josh Hart in New Orleans Pelicans v Portland Trail Blazers
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David Griffin is back.

Will Zion Williamson follow?

Griffin, who helped build the Cavaliers’ 2016 championship team as Cleveland’s lead executive then secured a haul from the Lakers for Anthony Davis early in his Pelicans tenure, had been in a rut. The walls appeared to be closing in on Griffin in New Orleans. He looked desperate to save his job.

But an inspiring trade with the Trail Blazers that returns C.J. McCollum and Larry Nance Jr. for a fairly low cost brings hope. Not only that Williamson will return from his foot injury this season (the timeline Griffin gave the second time), but that Williamson will stay long-term.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Andrew Lopez of ESPN:

McCollum is good. He might be the best player moved before the deadline. The Knicks, Mavericks and Pacers were reportedly interested in him.

But he’s on the wrong side of 30 and due $69,135,802 the next two seasons. Nance (29) isn’t much younger, though he’s significantly cheaper ($9,672,727 next season).

They don’t neatly match the timeline of Williamson, 21.

The fear: The Pelicans are making the same mistakes with Williamson they made with Davis – spending significant capital to add veterans early, not winning enough at that stage then being less-equipped to win around him once he enters his prime.

But the cost of adding McCollum and Nance was so low, New Orleans is justified making this win-now trade.

McCollum brings much-needed shot creation from the perimeter. Nickeil Alexander-Walker was way overburdened in that role. Brandon Ingram can use the relief. A versatile defensive forward, Nance adds another helpful element.

Even if it takes until next season (hopefully not), the Pelicans have meaningfully upgraded their supporting cast around Williamson.

New Orleans isn’t just waiting for Williamson to return, though. After a rough start, the Pelicans (21-32) are 10th in the Western Conference – already on track to make the play-in tournament and now looking even stronger. This trade weakens their next-closest competition, Portland (21-33), and should help them hold off the Spurs (20-34) and Kings (20-35).

There is limited short-term upside. New Orleans is 4.5 game back of the ninth-place Lakers. If they remain 10th, the Pelicans would have to go 2-0 in road games in the play-in tournament to advance to the playoffs. Highly unlikely.

But merely making the play-in tournament isn’t nothing. Those games are high-stakes and competitive. A winning (or even less-losing) environment could help improve Williamson’s habits. New Orleans has made the postseason just twice in the previous decade. Another meaningful game would be enjoyable.

The Trail Blazers, on the other hand, have had enough early-postseason losses for the time being after years of competing with Damian Lillard.

Portland already traded Norman Powell and Robert Covington to the Clippers. This deal supplements the Trail Blazers’ pivot into new direction. With Lillard injured and now looking increasingly likely to miss the rest of the season, Portland is accepting a lost year.

The Trail Blazers are now armed with the potential of a projected $30 million in cap space and two lottery picks – useful tools for building back up around Lillard.

Portland’s own lottery pick should land even higher after unloading so many productive players (tanking). New Orleans’ pick appears likely to convey this year in that 5-14 range. The Pelicans did well to top-four protect the pick (that was already sent to the Hornets in the Devonte' Graham sign-and-trade if it landed outside the lottery). That really limits the downside for New Orleans. However, the future protections if the pick doesn’t convey this year are unclear. Though unlikely to matter, those details could significantly swing the trade.

The Trail Blazers’ cap-space projection includes a cap hold for Anfernee Simons, whom they almost certainly want to keep in restricted free agency. The projection also includes waiving and stretching Eric Bledsoe (who has just a $3.9 million guarantee) and waiving Josh Hart (whose $12.96 million salary is unguaranteed). However, if nobody worth that much cap space is available, Portland could keep Hart, a gritty defensive wing and sometimes-capable 3-point shooter.

*A $60 million projection – which has been floated elsewhere – is unrealistic.

For perspective, if they trimmed their roster to just Damian Lillard, Nassir Little and Keon Johnson, the Trail Blazers would project to have less than $60 million in cap room.

Portland also has Alexander-Walker, Justise Winslow, Didi Louzada and Greg Brown with guaranteed salaries for next season and that partial guarantee for Bledsoe. Keeping Simons would further eat into the cap. Portland’s first-round picks count against the cap, too.

Of course, for that cap space to lead to winning, the Trail Blazers must use it. There have been rumors about Jody Allen selling the team ever since she took control. A teardown could be a prelude to a sale, offering a new owner a chance to start with a clean state. Whether Lillard gets an extension this summer could signal the franchise’s direction.

The No. 17 pick in the 2019 draft, Alexander-Walker has shown promise. But the guard has really struggled this season. It’s unclear how much the Trail Blazers value him as a prospect. He might have just been matching salary.

Didi Louzada is less likely to help Portland. He has shown little since getting drafted No. 35 in 2019, got suspended 25 games for steroids then recently underwent surgery for a torn meniscus. Tomas Satoransky was almost certainly included just for his matching salary on an expiring contract.

Khris Middleton reportedly set to return to Bucks Friday vs. Lakers

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The Milwaukee Bucks are about to get better. Likely a lot better.

Which should worry the rest of the league because the Bucks have looked like one of the two best teams in the Association this season: A 15-5 record with the best defense in the NBA and an MVP and Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Now they are about to get Khris Middleton back.

Middleton — the Bucks Olympian and All-Star forward — is set to make his season debut Friday night against the Lakers, reports Adrian Wojnarowski at ESPN. Middleton had been recovering from wrist surgery.

Middleton averaged 20.1 points and 5.4 rebounds and assists per game last season. More importantly in Milwaukee, Middleton is the hub of the Bucks’ halfcourt offense — he is the ball handler in the pick-and-roll at the end of games, asked to create for himself and others in the clutch (with Antetokounmpo working off the ball and sometimes setting picks). Without him so far this season, the Bucks’ halfcourt offense has struggled, ranked 21st in the NBA this season in points per possession (via Cleaning the Glass). Overall the Bucks have a middle-of-the-pack offense because of it.

That is about to change.

While Mike Budenholzer will ease him back into the rotation as he gets his wind back, having Middleton back makes the Bucks much more dangerous. Which is bad news for the rest of the NBA.

Three things to know: It’s Killian Hayes, not Doncic, who comes up with big shots in OT

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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) It’s Killian Hayes, not Doncic, who comes up with big shots in OT

The Detroit Pistons had a two-part plan down the stretch and in overtime against Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks.

First, aggressively trap Doncic out high on every pick-and-roll, make him give up the ball and dare any other Maverick to beat you.

Second, put the ball in Killian Hayes’ hands and turn him loose.

The result was Hayes hitting two clutch 3-pointers in the final 1:15 of overtime to lift the Pistons to a big 131-125 win at home over the Mavericks.

“They were switching me into a one-on-one matchup, so I knew I could get a shot off,” Hayes said via the Associated Press. “The first one felt good and the second one felt even better.”

Bojan Bogdanovic scored 30 to lead Detroit.

A frustrated Jason Kidd after the game rightfully questioned his team’s defense — Detroit, without Cade Cunningham, put up a 126 offensive rating for the night.

However, this loss speaks to the larger issue with the Mavericks.

Luka Doncic finished the night with 35 points on 50% shooting with 10 assists, but he had just seven points and two assists in the fourth quarter and overtime as the Pistons focused on getting the ball out of his hands (Doncic had the same number of points in the fourth and OT as the Pistons’ Marvin Bailey III). Nobody else on the Mavs consistently made the Pistons pay. The lack of secondary shot creation is a real issue, and while it’s nice to see Kemba Walker back in the league it’s a big ask for him to change that dynamic. The Mavericks beat the Warriors the other night, but it took a 41-point triple-double from Doncic, and that’s what it will take a lot of nights.

Doncic is playing at an MVP level this season, and against Detroit he consistently made the right basketball play in the face of double teams. But the load the Mavericks are asking of him is going to wear Doncic down over the course of the season, and it will cost the team games. The man needs some help (and it may not come until next season).

2) Bucks Khris Middleton expected to make return Friday night vs. Lakers

The Milwaukee Bucks have looked like one of the two best teams in the Association this season, compiling a 15-5 record with the best defense in the league behind an MVP and Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo.

And now they are about to get a lot better.

Khris Middleton — the Bucks Olympian and All-Star forward — is set to make his season debut Friday night against the Lakers. He has missed training camp and the start of the season following wrist surgery.

Middleton averaged 20.1 points and 5.4 rebounds and assists per game last season. More importantly, he is the hub of the Bucks’ halfcourt offense, the guy with the ball in his hands to create for others in the clutch (with Antetokounmpo working off the ball and sometimes setting picks). Milwaukee’s halfcourt offense has struggled without him, they are ranked 21st in the NBA this season in points per possession in the halfcourt (via Cleaning the Glass). It has held the Bucks’ overall offense back this season.

While Mike Budenholzer will ease him back into the rotation as he gets his wind back, just having Middleton back makes the Bucks that much better. Which is bad news for the rest of the league.

3) Celtics extend Al Horford for two seasons beyond this one

Al Horford, age 36, is going to stick around in the NBA for a couple more seasons.

Horford and the Celtics reached a deal on a two-year, $20 million extension (which kicks in next season).

This is a pay cut for Horford — who will make $26.5 million this season, the final year of a four-year, $109 million deal he signed in Philadelphia — but it’s a fair deal for both sides. This puts Horford closer to league-average money, which lines up with his value on the court at this point. Horford gets a couple more guaranteed years in the league, Boston gets a quality rotation player locked up, but at a low enough figure that if Father Time starts to win the race they will be okay.

Horford has had to play a more prominent role to start the season in Boston with Robert Williams still out following knee surgery. He is averaging  10.9 points and 6.3 rebounds a game, shooting 55.5% overall and 48.8% from 3-point range. Eventually, Joe Mazzulla needs to get the old man a little rest, but until the Celtics starting center returns he has little choice but to lean into Horford.

Celtics lock-up Al Horford with two-year, $20 million extension

Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics
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Brad Stevens has locked up the core of this Celtics team — the one that reached the Finals last season and has the best record in the NBA to start this one — through the summer of 2025.

They did that with a two-year, $20 million extension (that kicks in next season). The story was broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and later confirmed by the Celtics.

Horford, 36, is making $26.5 million this season, the final year of a four-year, $109 million deal he signed in Philadelphia. While he never fit well as a stretch four next to Joel Embiid, he has worked well as a role player in Boston’s front line. The Celtics have locked him up at a deal closer to the league average and about his value now, at an average of $10 million a season (both years are fully guaranteed). It’s a fair deal for both sides, and a low enough number that if Father Time starts to win the race it doesn’t hurt Boston much.

With Robert Williams still out following knee surgery, Horford has seen his minutes increase to start this season but he has handled it well, averaging  10.9 points and 6.3 rebounds a game, shooting 55.5% overall and 48.8% from 3-point range. Joe Mazzulla will likely try to get Horford some rest down the line when he can, but for now he’s leaning on the veteran.

And the team has rewarded him.

Donovan says Lonzo Ball’s recovery has ‘been really slow’

Milwaukee Bucks v Chicago Bulls
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Watching the finger-pointing and heated moments between Bulls’ defenders on Wednesday night as Devin Booker carved them up to the tune of 51 points, one thought was how much they miss Lonzo Ball‘s defense at the point of attack.

Ball had a second surgery on his knee back in September and the team said he would be out at “least a few months.” It’s coming up on a few months, so Donovan gave an update on Ball and his recovery, and the news was not good for Bulls’ fans. Via Rob Schaefer at NBC Sports Chicago:

“It’s been really slow,” Donovan said when asked about Ball’s rehab. “I’m just being honest.”

Donovan added Ball has not necessarily suffered a setback. The Bulls knew this would be an arduous process. But he also noted that Ball is “not even close” to being cleared for contact or on-court work.

Ball had his first knee surgery in January and the expectation was he would be back and 100% by the playoffs. However, Ball’s knee didn’t respond well, and he was eventually ruled out for the season. Things didn’t improve over the summer, which led to the second surgery. How much do they miss him? The Bulls were 22-13 with him last season, and he averaged 13.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 5.1 assists, a game. However, it was his defense that was most crucial.

There is no timeline for his return. Which is not good news for Chicago.