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NBA Power Rankings: After the big four at the top everything is wide open

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The top four on this ranking are fairly locked in, the top two teams in each conference. After that, it’s almost even down deep into the teens (how much gap is there between the Pelicans at 5 and the Jazz at 16?). The bottom eight are the same way, although Memphis has established itself as the tanking master right now. Sorry Gasol.

 
Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (50-13, Last Week No. 1). Winners of 16 straight, a clear title contender, and that only leaves two questions now: Can Houston set a new franchise record win streak (the current is 22-games during the 2007-08 season)? Second, can they hold off the Warriors for best record in the NBA? Golden State is 0.5 games back but has an easier schedule the rest of the way. That said, the Rockets care more about the top seed than the Warriors. Interesting matchup Friday night against Toronto.

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (50-14 LW 2). That Warriors’ malaise from right before the All-Star break is forgotten now. Coming out of the time off the Warriors are 6-0, their defense is focused again giving up a point per possession (100.1 per 100 possessions, fourth best in the NBA in that stretch), the Warriors are outscoring teams by 17.1 per 100 since the ASG, and they have become a team that starts fast thanks to the energy JaVale McGee brings as a starter (he doesn’t play much still, less than 15 minutes a night, but he gives them some athleticism and energy at the start they lacked).

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (46-17, LW 3). Rookie starting small forward OG Anunoby has missed three games now with a sprained ankle, but there are signs he should return soon. Norman Powell couldn’t grab the job with Anunoby out. What has made Toronto the No. 1 seed in the east is depth — Fred VanVleet and the bench are outscoring opponents badly and turning small leads into blowouts. The Raptors are up just 2 games up on the Celtics for the top seed but have an easier schedule the rest of the way (including a couple tanking teams this week). Fun test Friday night at the Air Canada Centre when James Harden and the Rockets show up.

 
Celtics small icon 4. Celtics (45-20, LW 4). Boston’s defense has been good but not great since the All-Star break (although certainly better than it was in the run-up to the break), however, the offense has been phenomenal scoring 117 points per 100 (second only to the Warriors). Helping with that is Jayson Tatum, who was hot to start the season (better than 45% from three in Nov. and Dec.) but hit the rookie wall in January (plus teams adapted and challenged him more), when he shot 34.1% from deep. While he has taken fewer shots in February and March (he’s taking what the defense gives him), he’s shooting well again (39.1% in Feb.).

 
Pelicans small icon 5. Pelicans (36-26, LW 12). Winners of nine in a row to move all the way up to the four seed in the West, they have impressed of late. Anthony Davis is understandably the focus as he has played at an MVP level during this stretch (34.8 points, 15.2 rebounds, and 3 blocks per game in his last 5) but it’s been a team effort on the defensive end during the run when the Pels are a top-10 defense. The Pelicans can secure a playoff slot (as much as anyone can in the West) over the next few weeks because after playing at Sacramento Wednesday night New Orleans has 9-of-11 at home.

 
Pacers small icon 6. Pacers (37-27, LW 11). What matters most in a tight race for playoff seeding in the East is beating other playoff teams, which is why the Pacers three-game win streak against the Bucks, Wizards, then Bucks again is big and has vaulted them up to the four seed. The Pacers have done that with all defense (3rd in the NBA since the All-Star break) and in spite of the offense (25th). Darren Collison is expected to still be out this week (knee) and they miss the depth he brings at the point.

 
Blazers small icon 7. Trail Blazers (39-26, LW 14). Damian Lillard is in full-on beast mode — in his last 10 games Lillard is averaging 35.4 points and 5.3 assists per game, plus shooting 43 percent from three — and has the Trail Blazers on a eight-game win streak that has bumped them up to the three seed in the West. What’s gotten overlooked in the flash of Lillard is the Blazers have the second best defense in the NBA during this eight-game stretch, giving up less than a point per possession.

 
8. Timberwolves (38-28, LW 5). Minnesota, still without Jimmy Butler (as it will be until, at best, near the end of the season), have started 0-2 in a tough eight-game stretch against other teams in the playoff mix. They are still projected to finish with 47-48 wins, which will be enough to get in, but Minnesota is just two games up on the nine-seed Clippers and they need to find a way to bank a few more wins. Some help from veteran Jamal Crawford would be nice, he’s shooting just 32.8% in his last five games, averaging 10.2 points on 11.6 shots in those contests. They need his spark of the bench.

 
Spurs small icon 9. Spurs (37-27, LW 6). They have gone 3-8 in their last 11 and the reason is their usually-stout defense has fallen off, giving up 6 more points per 100 than their season average in those last 11 games. Their transition defense in particular has been an issue during this stretch. Getting Rudy Gay back is not going to help the defense, but they need his shot creation until (if?) Kawhi Leonard returns. Rough stretch with the Warriors, Thunder, and Rockets on the road this week.

 
Cavaliers small icon 10. Cavaliers (37-26 LW 8). No Tristan Thompson for two weeks or so due to his sprained ankle, which means Larry Nance Jr. starts at center, Rodney Hood is on the wing, and Cedi Osman is coming off the bench. It looked great against the struggling Pistons, but the Cavaliers now head out on a six-game road trip against three teams in the playoff mix (Nuggets, Clippers, Trail Blazers) and a Lakers’ team playing well. That will be the real test for the new starting five.

 
Sixers small icon 11. 76ers (35-28, LW 9). Philly is headed to the playoffs this season, but looking ahead they still need to add more shooting next summer — the team is getting a below-average 0.98 points per possession on spot up looks (via Synergy Sports). That’s why they brought in Ersan İlyasova and Marco Belinelli off buyouts. Philly can try to retain J.J. Redick, or go after guys such as Wayne Ellington this summer, but they need shooters. The Sixers are a dominant home team (they have won 11 straight there) but started 1-1 in a string of 5-of-8 on the road.

 
Thunder small icon 12. Thunder (37-29 LW 13).. It can’t be said enough how much this team misses Andre Roberson: They are just 8-9 since his injury. Oklahoma City’s starters (Russell Westbrook, George, Carmelo Anthony, Steven Adams) were +14.8 per 100 possessions with Roberson but just +1.8 per 100 with anyone else in that fifth spot. It’s not just the defensive end, the offense has been worse without him (while Roberson can’t space the floor as a shooter they had figured out how to make him a cutter and hide his deficiencies). On the bright side, Anthony just passed Jerry West to move into 20th on the league’s all-time scoring list.

 
Wizards small icon 13. Wizards (37-28, LW 7). The Wizards are 13-14 this season in close games (within three points in the final three minutes), but they are shooting just 37.1% in those clutch minutes and 30.8% from three. To be fair, they do get to the free throw line more than any other team in that setting (2.7 times per game in those three minutes). Bradley Beal is shooting 34.1% in those three minutes, and 31.3% from three (he missed a few chances to tie or take the lead against the Pacers Sunday). Just something to remember as we head into the playoffs.

 
Nuggets small icon 14. Nuggets (35-29, LW 18).. Paul Millsap has played four games since coming back and the Nuggets are working to get him integrated into the offense again (he had some nice two-man dribble hand-off action with Gary Harris Tuesday), and is averaging 11.8 points on 41% shooting, plus grabbing 6.5 rebounds a game. Denver needs him to come around and as a team to bank some wins now — they have 4-of-5 at home and 6-of-8 against teams below .500 (although two of those are the feisty Lakers), then the schedule gets much more difficult.

 
Clippers small icon 15. Clippers (34-29 LW 16). Since trading Blake Griffin, the Clippers have gone 9-5 and have a top-10 offense scoring 111 points per 100 possessions in that stretch. Lou Williams and DeAndre Jordan get the attention, but Tobias Harris has been key to the surge (his play in Orlando was overlooked by many this season, he’s been impressive). The Clippers have started out 2-2 on a six-game homestand, but starting next Tuesday have 9-of-11 on the road.

 
Jazz small icon 16. Jazz (34-30, LW 15). Utah’s run before the All-Star break was fueled by a few things, like getting healthy, but also near the top of the list was three-point shooting. However, after the break, Utah is shooting just 29.2% as a team. It’s one thing that has their offense fourth worst in the league since the ASG (the Jazz have still gone 4-2, their defense is saving them). If Utah misses the playoffs, it will be because of their offense, despite the emergence of Donovan Mitchell. The Jazz have won three in a row but now head out on the road to face the Pacers, Grizzlies, and Pelicans.

 
Heat small icon 17. Heat (34-31, LW 17). Since their December-to-January seven game winning streak, Miami is 9-14 (which is a little unlucky, they have a 0.1 net rating in that window). The issue has been the offense, which is bottom 10 in those 23 games. That said, thanks to Detroit’s collapse, Miami is going to make the postseason, however, it looks like they are going to land Boston or Toronto in the first round and that’s going to be a tough road.

Bucks small icon 18. Bucks (34-30 LW 10). Milwaukee’s bench is one of the key reasons the team has lost 5-of-6, the team lacks depth and it can’t just be the Giannis Antetokounmpo show (with a little help from Eric Bledsoe). I like that coach Joe Prunty has started playing Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jabari Parker together, he needs to give that time to work (after some rough starts early).

 
Lakers small icon 19. Lakers (28-35 LW 20). In his last 20 games, Lonzo Ball is shooting 41.2% from three. It’s a big change from the 24% from the first 20 games. What is different? First, he’s gotten more comfortable with the speed of the NBA game and has a better understanding of how and where to get his shot off. The second part, the book on him is to go under picks and let him shoot — Gregg Popovich said as much after Lonzo drained threes to beat the Spurs last week. The second part of that is about to change.

 
Hornets small icon 20. Hornets (28-37, LW 19). With four losses in a row, the Hornets are now six games out of the last playoff spot with 17 games to go. It’s mathematically possible, but it’s not happening. To focus instead on the future, the Hornets have opened up the their GM search to a handful of up-and-comers from other organizations — that makes more sense than a retread, even if said new guy does not have North Carolina ties.

Pistons small icon 21. Pistons (29-35, LW 21). They have lost three in a row, 9-of-11, they have yet to beat a team not on a back-to-back since the Blake Griffin trade, and with all that their dreams of the playoffs have gone the way of the Dodo Bird. Since the trade, the Pistons have scored just 103.8 points per 100 possessions on offense, 24th in the NBA in that stretch. They could use Reggie Jackson back at the point, but Stan Van Gundy said this week “there’s nothing imminent with him.”

 
Mavericks small icon 22. Mavericks (20-45 LW 22). Dallas is giving Nerlens Noel some run to see what they’ve got, and in six games he’s averaged 4 points a game shooting 50% and has looked okay on that end, plus averaged a little over two blocks a game, but Dallas has struggled overall with him playing, getting outscored by 17.3 per 100 with him on the court (very small sample size alert). Nobody blows leads quite like the Mavericks, who have five times this year led by double digits in the last 10 minutes and still lost (the most recent was to Chicago last Friday).

 
Magic small icon 23. Magic (20-44, LW 26). Listen to the scuttlebutt around the league right now and Frank Vogel should be polishing up his resume. It’s never a good sign for a coach when the management above him changes, then the team doesn’t win (even if it’s not his fault, and I don’t lay most of the problems there at Vogel’s feet). Orlando won its first two games in March thanks to some hot shooting from Evan Founier, but lost at Utah to start a string of five games on the road against the West.

 
Hawks small icon 24. Hawks (20-45, LW 27). They have won 2-of-4, with a surprising win over the Pacers then Taurean Prince knocking down the game winner against the Hawks. Part of the reason for that is coach Mike Budenholzer has the Hawks defending fairly well again, over the pat 15 games the Hawks are 12th in the NBA on that end of the floor. It’s a foundation to rebuild on.

 
Kings small icon 25. Kings (20-44, LW 28). Is the De'Aaron Fox and Bogdan Bogdanovic pairing the backcourt of the future in Sacramento? It’s early, but those the team is -10 per 100 with the pair on the court for the season, and in the last 10 games that is -10.5 per 100 (Sacramento has a -8.6 net rating for the season, for comparison). The Kings picked up a couple of recent wins against other tanking teams (the Knicks and Nets).

 
Knicks small icon 26. Knicks (24-41, LW 23). They are 2-15 without Kristaps Porzingis this season, and now have lost 13 of their last 14. Without KP for this last stretch the New York offense is terrible as you would expect, scoring less than a point per possession, but Porzingis’ presence in the paint is missed as well, with the Knicks allowing 112.2 points per 100 possessions, 27th in the NBA for that stretch. The Knicks took a flier on Emmanuel Mudiay, but through 9 games he is shooting 33% overall, 12.5% from three, and has been a defensive mess.

 
Nets small icon 27. Nets (20-45, LW 24). While they still get outscored with him on the court (because this is not a good team), the Nets have been 6 points per 100 possessions better with D’Angelo Russell on the court during the last 15 games. He’s averaged 13.8 points per game in that time, but has not been efficient needing 13.2 shots to get there (and shooting 31% from three). The Nets have been 4.4 points per 100 better than their average when Russell has been paired in the backcourt with Spencer Dinwiddie, although the defense struggles with both of them on the court.

 
Bulls small icon 28. Bulls (21-42 LW 25).. The Bulls got their warning and we will see Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday back in the rotation (although likely in laminated minute). That said, the Bulls have found some success with a front court rotation of Lauri Markkanen and Bobby Portis. That said, if the Bulls are trying to tank then playing Markkanen next to Lopez has proved an effective mess all season.

 
Suns small icon 29. Suns (19-47, LW 30). In his 10 games with the Suns, Elfrid Payton has averaged 15.7 points per game, dished out 6.3 assists per night, with a slightly below average true shooting percentage of 52.7, he’s been solid. That said, the Suns are -9.7 when Payton and Devin Booker are paired (they are -11.2 per 100 in those games total) and the defense struggles when both are on the court. I’m not sold this is the pairing of the future, that said in the draft the Suns need to take the best player regardless of position. They just need talent.

 
Grizzlies small icon 30. Grizzlies (18-45, LW 29). Losers of 14 in a row, that slides them down to the bottom of these rankings. They even lost to the Suns in a battle of losing streaks. This is good for the team heading into the draft, but Marc Gasol is frustrated with all the losing which could make this an interesting summer in Memphis. He wants to stay, but does he trust ownership/management enough to get this team back on track (just getting Mike Conley back is not enough).

Mavericks only have four players on court, Bulls still can’t score (VIDEO)

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This is what tanking playing your younger players to develop them looks like. (We don’t want Adam Silver to get mad.)

During the Bulls vs. Mavericks race-to-the-bottom contest Friday night, the Mavericks had just four players on the court for a defensive possession. Didn’t matter, Bulls still couldn’t convert.

The Mavericks then got a technical for the play.

In the tankapalooza at the bottom of the NBA standings — where 2.5 games separate eight teams in a race to the best lottery odds — the winner of games between two teams in that group takes a double hit. Chicago beat Dallas 108-100 on Friday behind 22 points from Bobby Portis (who has played well of late) and that would have the Bulls with the eighth best lottery odds as of now when the ping-pong balls drop. The Mavericks are one of 4 teams with 19 wins, right in the middle of the pack.

Report: Wizards’ Tim Frazier will have surgery after taking knee to the face

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Tim Frazier has been a rotational player in Washington all season for the Wizards, but it looks like he could be out for a few days after taking a need to face on Saturday night against the Chicago Bulls.

Playing early in the second quarter, Frazier lost his footing while trying to threaten from a triple threat position. Frazier started to fall forward, and as defenders rushed to trap him during a Washington pick-and-roll, he went to a knee. That’s when his face (and nose) collided with Bobby Portis‘ knee, and Frazier had to leave the game.

It was an ugly collision, especially on replay, and many were hoping the damage was light for Frazier.

Early on Sunday, reports came in that Frazier would get surgery on his nose and could perhaps be back in the upcoming week.

Via Twitter:

Are we destined to get yet another NBA player in a mask this season? We’ve already had Kyrie Irving and Ron Baker. Perhaps Frazier is next.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the Nikola Mirotic to Pelicans trade

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Nikola Mirotic was going to get moved at the trade deadline, the only questions were where, and would the Bulls get the first round pick they wanted?

Yes, they did — from a Pelicans team desperate to make the playoffs, battling a major injury and who needs both shooting and more big men. The Mirotic trade to the Big Easy was put together on Thursday and will be official soon.

As a reminder of how this trade shakes out:

Chicago receives: Omer Asik, Tony Allen, Jameer Nelson, a 2018 first-round pick (with a Nos. 1-5 protection this year, so it conveys unless the Pelicans miss the playoffs then land in the top three in the lottery) and the right to swap second-rounders with the Pelicans in 2021.

New Orleans receives: Nikola Mirotic and the Pelicans’ own 2018 second-round pick (New Orleans traded it to Chicago in the Quincy Pondexter salary dump last summer).

So how did everyone do in this deal? Let’s break it down Clint Eastwood style with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

The Good: Nikola Mirotic. He got what he wanted most — the Pelicans agreed to pick up his $12.5 million contract option for next season. Yes, Mirotic wanted to get out of Chicago after the “Bobby Portis broke his face with a punch” incident (although the fallout from that seemed to have mellowed out), and yes he wanted the opportunity to show off his skills, but mostly he wanted the cash. It’s always about the money.

That said, he’s going to get a chance to shine in New Orleans and really help a team trying to hold on to a playoff spot. If the Pelicans sign Greg Monroe (bought out by the Suns) as expected, Mirotic will be the third big, the first off the bench, and they are going to lean on him to create looks and get shots with the second unit. Mirotic is not going to finish the season shooting 42.9 percent from three, that’s already started to slow down, but he can score the rock inside and out, and the Pelicans can use that with DeMarcus Cousins sitting in street clothes and a cast. (Alvin Gentry did a great job of staggering Anthony Davis and Cousins, now that second unit needs the boost.) Plus it means less Darius Miller at the four, which is a good thing.

What’s more, Mirotic may be the perfect guy at the four when Anthony Davis is at the five. That’s why we get to the next “good” part of this trade.

The Good: The New Orleans Pelicans (mostly). New Orleans prioritized making the playoffs this season (read: Alvin Gentry and Dell Demps like their jobs), and since Cousins went down with a torn Achilles the Pelicans have lost to the Clippers and at home to the Kings. It felt like they were about to spiral, but this move (and likely signing of Monroe) likely helps them hold on to a postseason berth.

The Pelicans are not as good as they were with Cousins — and they are locked into playing Mirotic next season — but they will be good enough (considering the Clippers probably take a step back). Also, having Mirotic on the roster next season is some insurance in case Cousins does leave via free agency (most people think he stays, but you never know).

Here may be the best part of the Mirotic trade: We can finally see some Pelicans’ lineups with Anthony Davis at the five and actual shooting around him. How about this lineup: Davis, Mirotic, E'Twaun Moore, Jrue Holiday, and Darius Miller. That lineup has potential. (I just hope Gentry doesn’t screw it up and put Rondo in rather than Miller.)

The only downsides here for the Pelicans are giving up that first-round pick, and adding $1.2 million more in salary to the books next season (that’s how much more Mirotic will make compared to Asik). The Pelicans will be flirting with the luxury tax next season, the advantage is Mirotic will be a contributor to the team on the court, unlike Asik.

The Good: The Bulls “effort” to get a high draft pick. The Bulls will not use the word “tank,” but they should be closer to the bottom of the standings than they are. Chicago started poorly this season but has played well of late (gone 15-13 in their last 28) and if the draft lottery were today it would be seeded sixth (a 6.3 percent chance at the top spot and a 21.4 percent chance of landing in the top three). With this move the Bulls should lose a little more, and stand a better chance of sliding behind the Suns out West and maybe other teams to improve their lottery (and ultimately draft) position.

The Bad: The rest of this deal for Chicago. The Bulls did land the Pelicans first-round draft pick (likely in the high teens somewhere), and that has some value (as long as they learned their Jordan Bell lesson and don’t sell it). But to do that they gave up a strong trade asset in Mirotic, took on salary almost up to what Mirotic would have made had they had just picked up his option, and did they need to give the Pelicans their second-round pick back?

I don’t hate this deal, it’s not selling the Jordan Bell pick bad (or giving up the No. 16 pick in the Jimmy Butler deal), but it’s not great.

The Bad: Anyone who thought the Pelicans would try to trade Anthony Davis this summer. Most non-crazy Celtics fans realized that if New Orleans comes to the realization it has to move Davis or lose him, they won’t do it until the summer of 2019. Go ahead and try to rationalize the “they will get more for him now” arguments if you want, but the reality in New Orleans is far more straightforward: They are not going to see a player like Davis come through for a long time so they need to do everything they can to keep him. Davis isn’t just a No. 1 pick, he’s a top-five NBA player who brings it on both ends, a first-team All-NBA level player, and he is just entering his prime. You don’t trade a guy like that unless you have to.

The Pelicans are going to try to make this all work. Maybe it doesn’t and Danny Ainge can swoop in from the vulture’s perch he’s sitting on and pick the carcass clean, but that’s not happening for more than a year.

The Ugly: The playoff dreams of the Utah Jazz. It was going to be a longshot for the Jazz to make the postseason anyway, they probably need to go at least 21-9 or better the rest of the way to make the cut. However, with the Cousins injury and the Blake Griffin trade from the Clippers, it may have felt in Salt Lake City like the door to the postseason was opening a crack.

This trade to get Mirotic to New Orleans pretty much slams that door shut. It will stop the bleeding in the Big Easy. Sorry Jazz fans, hopefully next year the core can just stay healthy.

Report: After DeMarcus Cousins’ injury, Pelicans trading for Bulls’ Nikola Mirotic

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The Pelicans and Bulls pulled a humpty dumpty and put the Nikola Mirotic trade together again.

The initial deal appeared to fall apart because Mirotic used his veto power that automatically comes with being on a one-year contract and having Bird Rights at the end of it. So, the teams nullified Mirotic’s veto power by turning his one-year deal into a two-year deal by exercising his $12.5 million team option for next season now.

With Mirotic powerless to stop it (and getting his desired salary guarantee next season), he’ll go to New Orleans – primarily for a first-round pick and Omer Asik‘s burdensome contract, but with Tony Allen, Jameer Nelson and other picks also changing teams.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

The Pelicans were down a starting-caliber big after DeMarcus Cousinsseason-ending injury, and Mirotic will fill that hole. New Orleans clearly values protecting its two-game cushion for playoff position, and – in what has become a near-annual tradition – will deal its first-round pick to improve the present.

Mirotic is having a nice year, and his shot making – particularly while spacing the floor beyond the 3-point arc – should make New Orleans’ offense even more dangerous.

By acquiring a power forward, this pushes Anthony Davis toward center, a position he doesn’t particularly like to play. The physical pounding at center is substantial, and this increases Davis’ injury risk.

That’s why the protections on the first-round pick are important. Even at 27-23 so far, the Pelicans’ floor is somewhat low this season. Not only are there injury concerns, this team must adjust on the fly while effectively swapping Cousins for Mirotic.

Mirotic will probably welcome the challenge. He wanted to leave Chicago after a preseason practice fight with teammate Bobby Portis left Mirotic hospitalized. Mirotic returned and played well while saying the right things, and the Bulls are living up to their end of the bargain by trading him.

Asik – guaranteed $10,595,505 this season, $11,286,516 next season and $3 million of $11,977,527 the follow season – carries significant negative value. Taking him is a burden that improved Chicago’s draft return.

To lesser degrees, the same applies for Allen and Nelson, veterans who serve little purpose on the tanking/rebuilding Bulls.

Allen has been hurt, and Nelson has been ineffective. Though both are on just minimum contracts, New Orleans is perilously close to the luxury-tax line and hard cap. Dumping their salaries and clearing roster spots helps the Pelicans.

If Allen gets healthy, his defense could help a better team down the stretch. Likewise, Nelson could provide decent depth on a team short a point guard. Quincy Pondexter is probably finished.

In addition to waiving those three, I believe the Bulls would technically exercise Mirotic’s team option before the trade. If he consents based on the belief the Pelicans will do it, there’s a non-zero chance they renege. Having the option exercised first is the only surefire way for Mirotic to get his desired security.

New Orleans initially hesitated to accept Mirotic with a guaranteed 2018-19 salary in fear that’d make re-signing Cousins too expensive. The Pelicans will still have Cousins’ full Bird Rights and the ability to pay him up to the max, but they could cross the luxury-tax line, probably a no-go for ownership. But the luxury tax won’t be assessed until the end of the regular season. The way Mirotic has been playing, New Orleans might even be able to flip him for value before next season’s trade deadline.