Bulls vs. Heat
1.) Were the Miami Heat right to prioritize and build around Hassan Whiteside based on his early season returns, at the expense of Dwyane Wade? Bryan Toporek: Without a doubt. If you’re building around a 34-year-old with balky knees, you’re doing it wrong. Look at what a joke the Lakers were in the twilight of Kobe Bryant’s career. Sentimentality and the business of sports rarely go hand-in-hand, so unless stars prioritize their teams’ financial health over their own — see: Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki repeatedly signing below-market deals over the past few years — teams have to move on from them at some point. Also, it’s not like the Heat didn’t try to re-sign him; their two-year, $40 million offer was nearly equivalent to Chicago’s after factoring in Florida’s lack of state tax. No one should fault Wade for feeling insulted and joining the Bulls instead, but Pat Riley made the prudent move in building around a 27-year-old shot-swatting machine with enormous upside rather than Wade on the downswing of his career.
Adam Joseph: Yes. Sentimentality is not meant for modern basketball. Dwyane Wade will go down as the Miami Heat’s greatest player, but the right long term decision was building around Hassan Whiteside. The big man earned every dollar he was paid, and has played like it so far. Whiteside is a player others will want to play around because of his sheer defensive value and destructive presence on the floor.
Wade last season was mostly a shadow of himself who despite some big nights, was actually a minus on the floor particularly defensively. It wasn’t handled well by Pat Riley who treats respect as a one-way road, but it was the right decision for player and team.
Vivek Jacob: Yes. Whiteside is a much better option when considering the future. Wade may have a nice couple of years to finish his career in Chicago, but Riley has put the Heat in position to find a star that can give the Heat a larger window of winning. The development of Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson, and Tyler Johnson is also vital to their long-term success, and with Wade out of the picture, the Heat can fast track their development.
Eli Horowitz: Things could have ended more harmoniously between Pat Riley and Dwyane Wade, but Pat Riley chose to prioritize developing his young players. While the Heat won 48 games last year, got past the Hornets in the first-round, and even pushed the Raptors to seven games, they hit their ceiling as constructed. The Heat could ill-afford to spend two or more seasons making the playoffs, being outside the lottery, and swimming in mediocrity.
Although the Lakers signed Kobe to a two-year deal and were criticized for not developing their young players, the silver lining was that they were a lottery team and were able to both appease Kobe and win in the draft. The Heat with Wade were still too good to pull that off. Now they can give all those shots and minutes to Justise Winslow, Tyler Johnson, and Josh Richardson, and in Whiteside they lock up a rim protector who won’t impede their subtle move towards the lottery.
2.) How has Wade looked in a Bulls uniform?
Bryan Toporek: Shockingly good. The big story, obviously, is his three-point shooting — through seven games, he’s already hit more triples (10) than he did all of last season (seven) in 74 games. If he maintains this career-best efficiency from deep (43.5 percent), he’ll shatter his previous high of 88 three-pointers in a season. Even if his downtown shooting regresses to the mean over the coming weeks, his aggressiveness driving to the cup should hearten Chicago fans. The spacing concerns that many had about the Bulls’ starting backcourt heading into the year have yet to materialize in large part because Wade, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler have been decisive upon receiving the ball rather than dribbling aimlessly around the perimeter. He’s also among the top fifth of the league in pick-and-roll efficiency, per NBA.com, further speaking to his positive early-season impact.
Adam Joseph: He hasn’t looked like the Miami version of Wade, that is for certain. Like he did with LeBron in South Beach, he’s conceded the leadership of the team to Jimmy Butler and taken a secondary role. His 43 percent from the perimeter is surely not sustainable, and his Bulls are starting to regress. Their offense and defense post worse net ratings with him on the floor, and this is something to monitor going forward because it was the same case in Miami last year.
Jacob Vivek: He’s been better than expected, and it’s because of that three-point shot. 1.5 threes per game at 42.9 percent is a career-best mark, and the three to clinch the win in his first home game for Chicago will be a personal career highlight among the many glorious moments he’s had.
Wade has always been someone that has defined himself by team success, and that’s what he’ll be most proud of to this point. The Bulls are .500, but are playing better than many expected going in. The Rondo-Wade-Butler trifecta has used their basketball IQ to silence the pace-and-space critics thus far, and he’ll be looking to help the Bulls maintain their playoff standing.
Elite Horowitz: Wade has looked great so far in the Bulls uniform. His PER is his highest since the 2013-2014 season, he’s shooting 43% from three, and he’s already shown clutch Wade. At the same time, his assist numbers are down, and that’s concerning given he has gotten some key minutes with the second unit. While that’s an opportunity for him to takeover the game, at 4-4, the Bulls are desperate to develop and get more out of their bench. Wade could play a Harden-type role with the second unit, and 2.9 assists per game is not that. There are also questions about overshadowing and taking turns with Jimmy Butler, and we’ll see how that plays out.
3.) Who finishes with a better record this season and why?
Bryan Toporek: The Bulls. Outside of Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside, Miami doesn’t have enough consistent sources of offense to stay afloat this season, barring an unexpected return from Chris Bosh. The Bulls, meanwhile, go a legitimate nine or 10 deep, as Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott, Cristiano Felicio and Isaiah Canaan are all making notable contributions off the bench. If one of Chicago’s Big Three goes down with an injury — given Wade’s history with knee problems, it’s a near-certainty that he’ll start sitting out games as the season progresses — the Bulls have the depth to survive and stay afloat. Miami’s margin of error, on the other hand, is troublingly thin.
Adam Joseph: Chicago, but only just barely. Butler and Wade will get them more wins, but it’s likely neither team makes the Playoffs. The Heat’s offense is horrendous as we saw in Oklahoma City this week, and the Bulls will grow more inconsistent as their shooting regresses to the mean. Goran Dragic has got off to a nice start and the Heat have a nice collection of role players, but it’s clearly a transition year for Erik Spoelstra’s men. The Bulls are still trying to win with little concern for the future.The Heat have the better outlook long term, but it’s the Bulls who will finish higher in the standings this season.
Vivek Jacob: The Bulls. They are the better team, and it’s arguable that Wade’s veteran savvy and leadership will be the difference. I do also anticipate Riley looking to move Goran Dragic at some point in the season, perhaps nearer the trade deadline. Combined with Chris Bosh dropping off the salary books, this would give Riley the cap space he craves, but also hinder the Heat’s ability to win games this season.
Chicago looks like they will be battling the likes of Milwaukee, Detroit, Indiana, and New York for the lower playoff seeds of the Eastern Conference, and should finish the season with about 42-44 wins. I’ll be surprised if the Heat get any more than 35.
Eli Horowitz: The Bulls and that’s by design. It might be close, because Erik Spoelstra is a good coach and the Heat are going to compete every night, but the Heat are set up to maintain a decent core but still get into the lottery. The Bulls in signing Wade and Rondo were clearly looking to get back into the playoffs, and not getting at least an eighth seed would be a complete failure. Coaching is a concern for Chicago, but there’s just enough star power to break 40 wins, something the Heat will struggle to accomplish.
Lakers vs. Kings:
1.) What is D’Angelo Russell’s ceiling and how good can this young Lakers’ core be?
Bryan Toporek: Russell can be a multiple-time All-Star, and this young Lakers core could anchor the next great L.A. dynasty. Byron Scott did his damnedest to undermine Russell every step of the way during his rookie campaign, but in new head coach Luke Walton, he has an ideal mentor. Walton’s experience with Stephen Curry and the pass-heavy Golden State Warriors gives him the locker room clout that a rookie head coach desperately needs, and Russell already appears to be soaking up his guidance after surviving the dark cloud of the Scott era. Brandon Ingram should likewise make multiple All-Star Games throughout his career, but the big surprise this year is Julius Randle, who is showing flashes of a far more well-rounded skill set. If he can emerge as L.A.’s Draymond Green — Green himself has said Randle could be even better than him — the Lakers will be well on their way back from the Western Conference basement. If they can avoid sending their top-three-protected first-round pick to the Philadelphia 76ers next June by hitting the lottery jackpot, they’ll have one of the league’s best young foundations.
Adam Joseph: This Lakers core is excellent, and it’s finally getting a chance to develop under a coach who knows how to get the most out of it rather than conducting a farcical year-long goodbye to Kobe Bryant. With Bryant out the door, the team can focus on the excellent young talents of Julius Randle, the ever underrated Larry Nance Jr, Brandon Ingram and of course D’Angelo Russell.Russell is an incredible talent and in a team that will allow him to make mistakes and learn from them. His shot selection will improve, as well as his long range shooting. Despite a stellar preseason we’re learning already that he’s still quite raw, but Walton makes out as a coach who is willing to be patient and foster Russell’s development. His ceiling is somewhere between Kemba Walker and Kyrie Irving, depending on how he shapes out as a playmaker and shooter.
Vivek Jacob: Best scoring point guard in the league one day? I’ve loved the maturity he’s shown so far this season. He’s doing exactly what Luke Walton wants, and while he hasn’t caught fire like he did in some of his preseason games, there’s a steadiness to his game this season that is helping the Lakers win games.
This could be a very good core, for a very long time. Whether he’s bringing the ball up the court or beating his man off the dribble, it’s special to see how fluid Julius Randle is with his movement. Jordan Clarkson continues to go from strength to strength, and is emerging as one of the main leaders of the team. Then there’s Brandon Ingram. This kid is special. For a rookie forward to play with a maturity in his game to the point where Walton has him running the team for stretches at the point, it shows just how far he can go. Lakers fans will have championship banners in their sights in four of five years.
Eli Horowitz: In his sophomore campaign, D’Angelo Russell is already posting 15 and five while shooting at league average from three. You can already see the impact of Head Coach Luke Walton, who has this team reading and reacting and playing fast but not sloppy. The Lakers are second in pace and are moving the ball quickly in the half-court as well. Walton’s system and player development are encouraging, and this young core will all benefit in a way they may not have with different coaching. Unless the Grizzlies are healthy and pull away, this team will stay in the hunt for the eigth-seed because teams like Denver, Sacramento, and Minnesota are all figuring themselves out. Russell is a year away from being an All Star, but the Lakers are building a team where there may be three or more all-star caliber players rather than one superstar.
2.) Step into the Kings’ GM role for a minute, what do you do with DeMarcus Cousins?
Bryan Toporek: Publicly, I definitively state I’m not trading him. Privately, I shop him aggressively and take the best deal by the trade deadline at the latest. Given how leaky the Kings have been in recent years, I’d keep those trade conversations limited to very few people within my organization. But let’s look at the facts: The Kings have yet to make the playoffs in any of Cousins’ first six seasons. He’ll be a free agent after the 2017-18 campaign. Even if he gets along well with new head coach Dave Joerger, the Kings have pissed away lottery pick after lottery pick, depleting what should be a collection of promising young talent.
The dysfunction that’s long reigned in Sacramento will likely deter big-name free agents from joining the Kings, barring massive overpays. In all likelihood, Cousins will leave the Kings in July 2018, so trading him now — when he still has a full year on his contract beyond 2016-17 — will maximize the returns for Sacramento. Trading a superstar is never an easy call, but given the probability of him fleeing as a free agent, the prospect of losing him for nothing should outweigh those concerns.
Adam Joseph: At this point even by the Kings’ standards you have to test the market, no? Cousins deal expires in 2018, but they have to consider the fact that a teardown might be inevitable. Willie Caulie-Stein is a talented young big they can build around; not as a franchise cornerstone but a key piece going forward. Caulie-Stein is the modern big who can run the floor, block shots and have shooters placed around him.
Cousins tenure has been poisonous, excuses have been made and despite All-NBA talent every year it has been mired by drama. Depending on his comfort level under Dave Joerger, the Kings have to consider whether he will even consider staying when he hits free agency. There are teams out there with serious assets (Boston and Denver, for example) who can send the Kings back pieces to start rebuilding with. It’s time to face reality, and a future that might not include their troubled big man
Vivek Jacob: Trade him. I can’t envision a scenario in which he would want to remain with this dysfunctional franchise and so Sacramento would be better served to at least collect some assets in return while they can. They’re still not a playoff team, and though he now has a much better relationship with Joerger, it will be hard to ignore all those years of frustration when other teams come calling in free agency. A clean slate with a new player to build around may help the franchise get rid of the nasty stench, and it’s a move they’re better off considering now before it’s too late.
Eli Horowitz: The Kings have had opportunities to trade DeMarcus Cousins in the past and return a loot of draft picks. They haven’t. Now, with a respectable coach in Dave Joerger and an open playoff race in the West, the Kings could actually surprise people. It’s early, but at 4-5 they are a game out and like the Lakers, will battle other young teams for that spot barring the Grizzlies running away with it.
Teams like the Raptors and Celtics could be desperate to add a final piece to give them a shot against against Cleveland, so there will be good offers on the table. But the Kings don’t want a Mike Malone situation where the team is playing well and Cousins is agreeable with the coach, and you then shake things up. The Kings without Cousins would be unwatchable and the joke of the league, and if they were embracing the all-out tank, we would have seen it by now.
If I’m GM I do trade him, because I don’t think he’s the best player on a championship team, and I’d rather hit the restart button with multiple lottery picks. But factoring in the business side, the hiring of Joerger, and management’s history, I believe they go for the eighth seed.
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