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As the playoffs approach, so do forks in the road and potential breaking points for several teams up and down the standings. To break down some of the biggest questions in the NBA this week, I tapped in some of the best minds from The Step Back and FanSided’s NBA network.
1. Can Julius Randle and Tom Thibodeau coexist on the Knicks beyond this season? If they can only keep one, who should they keep?
Bradley Dressler, Daily Knicks: From an outside-looking-in perspective, I can see why some may believe that there’s tension between Thibs and Julius. But as a Knicks fan, I’d have to wholeheartedly disagree. I think the bulk of the tension comes from the two of them being supreme competitors and not being able to do what they love to do best; win. If there were genuine issues between the two then how come Thibs refuses to play Obi Toppin in place of Julius for more than a few minutes at a time? How come the Knicks seemingly had opportunities at the trade deadline to move on from Julius and didn’t? Prior to Leon Rose, William Wesley, and Tom Thibodeau coming aboard … they had dinner with one player on the Knicks — Julius Randle. I know there are plenty of fans who don’t want to see Julius on the team past this season but I think both he and Thibodeau will be here next season in the same capacity. That said, if next season garners similar results to that of this year … one if not both will be gone shortly thereafter and my money would be on Thibs getting booted first.
James Piercey, The J-Notes: Frankly, I’m not a huge fan of either as a foundational piece. My friend, fellow FanSided site expert, and podcast co-host Nevin Brown always says that often, the Most Improved Player award is given to a player that in hindsight, has an outlier season. He’s right. I think Randle is miscast as a first option. He’d look a lot different alongside a Dame Lillard, for example. Meanwhile, I’ll give Thibodeau credit for modernizing his shot profile, but I wonder if his old-school mentality wears on today’s players. I think the Knicks should consider moving on from both, but roster construction always trumps coaching staff. I’d trade Randle unless they’re able to swing a trade for an actual primary weapon.
Jason Reed, Lake Show Life: It is less than ideal but they might have to just out of necessity. Thibs is one of the most respected coaches in the league and after years of mediocrity, it is hard to see the Knicks firing him after this season. However, the Thibs “magic” always seems to rub off after the first year or two with a new team and I absolutely would not be shocked if he is fired midseason next year. The Knicks should keep Randle just to have him as an asset to potentially shop for the next disgruntled star that wants out of their franchise (looking at you, Zion).
2. It’s almost impossible to imagine the Lakers going into next season with Russell Westbrook on the roster. But it’s almost impossible to imagine a way they could actually get rid of him. How does this all work out?
Bradley Dressler, Daily Knicks: The last time I heard that a contract was ‘untradable’, it belonged to Russell Westbrook. The time before that it belonged to Chris Paul…and Russell Westbrook. The time before both of those times was also none other than, you guessed it, Russell Westbrook. Will it be difficult to get Russ off the team? Yes. Will it happen though? Also yes … if that is in fact what LeGM wants. Things have a funny way of getting done when it involves making the teams who roster some of the top players in the league better … especially when your team rosters LeBron James. I think the Lakers may get a player or several players who don’t have the same name recognition as Russ does but will fit better alongside LeBron and Anthony Davis. Either that or LeBron forces his way out of LaLa Land. I mean, they may as well see if they can persuade him to go to the team of his choosing because regardless of what happens net season, LeBron is out to whoever drafts his kid in a couple of years anyway.
James Piercey, The J-Notes: I think the Lakers and Rockets should re-explore the talks they allegedly had at the deadline. I really think Wall and Christian Wood for Westbrook and Talen Horton-Tucker is a fair trade for both sides. In theory, a healthy AD should be able to compensate for Wood’s defensive deficiencies. Wood is probably a better perimeter defender than rim protector as well: he might be better at the 4. Meanwhile, Wall is a (marginally) better fit for the Lakers than Westbrook: he’ll shoot a bit better from deep and he’s a more fundamentally sound defender. It’s a gamble, given how little we’ve seen of Wall lately, but anything should be better than this.
On the Rockets’ end, THT is exactly the type of flier this team should be taking. He’s having a catastrophic season, but what 21-year-old wouldn’t amidst this dumpster fire? He’s still got upside. I’m not even sure if the Rockets would need a first-round pick. They’ve clearly outgrown Wood: they’d be effectively flipping him for THT. Given Wood’s perception around the league, that seems like decent value.
If this deal isn’t on the table, I am stumped. They can shop him along with THT and a pick, but I don’t see them getting much more than John Wall and Christian Wood.
Jason Reed, Lake Show Life: There are three possible scenarios. The extremely likely scenario, the unlikely scenario and the absolute dream scenario. The extremely likely scenario is that Russell Westbrook is back next season and all of the same issues that are plaguing the Lakers this season will unfold next season as well, effectively closing the two-year title window that the team had left with LeBron and AD. The unlikely scenario is the Lakers pawning off Westbrook to a team with cap space. Oklahoma City and Orlando are two potential salary-dump targets. Maybe the Lakers can work something out to trade Westbrook and picks just to get him off the books. We have seen OKC take on a deal like this before. The dream scenario is Frank Vogel finally committing to outright benching Westbrook (think John Wall) and Westbrook letting his ego get in the way of a smart business decision and opting out of the 2022-23 season. He has 47 million reasons to not do that, but we have seen players bet on themselves in the past when they really shouldn’t have.
3. If the Jazz can’t breakthrough in the playoffs this season, will it finally be time to explore trading Rudy Gobert or Donovan Mitchell?
Bradley Dressler, Daily Knicks: You’re asking the wrong question in my opinion. It’s not if the Jazz should explore the possibility but more so will Donovan Mitchell allow the team any more time to ‘figure things out’. It feels like every few months for the better part of two years, we hear about Donovan Mitchell being disgruntled with Utah and rumors that he would ask out soon. Recent speculation suggests that he would want to either end up with the Knicks or Miami, so there’s that. The issue with Utah is that they committed a massive contract to Rudy Gobert who plays a position that teams no longer covet unless you’re a deadly inside-scoring presence, can put the ball on the floor a little bit, can pass well, and of course shoot when need be. Gobert has more value to the Utah Jazz than he does any other team in the league so if they were to trade him, they wouldn’t get anything close to equal value in return. Thus, shooting themselves in the foot because even if Spida gave them another season and promised to offload Rudy, there’s no way they’d be a better team than they are today. If I had to put money on it, I’d bet Mitchell stays with Utah regardless of what happens in the playoffs this season. But I could also see him forcing his way out of town to come home and play for the Knicks…
James Piercey, The J-Notes: Yes. The old cliched “definition of insanity” comes to mind here. The only caveat I’d add would be that if they’re trading Mitchell, they should definitely explore trading both. Losing their offensive engine would forcibly trigger a wholesale rebuild. Keeping the best rim protector in the league would seem misguided unless the Jazz can find a deal that allows them to pivot. I think it’s more likely that they’d find a rebuilding package: Tyler Herro + contracts and picks, or a similar package centered around RJ Barrett.
On the other hand, if Mitchell is content to stay, they can pivot. In that event, I imagine they’d look to move Gobert for a more viable second offensive option, and replace Gobert’s production at cost. They may even opt to just hold onto Hassan Whiteside. I’m struggling to come up with suggestions: Jerami Grant in a 3-team deal? Brandon Ingram? I’m not sure, but Gobert will inevitably have value.
Jason Reed, Lake Show Life: The Jazz probably should shop Rudy Gobert if they fall short in the NBA Finals yet again. Donovan Mitchell is the guy in Utah and while Gobert is an elite defender and his regular-season metrics are off the charts, he simply provides a mismatch in a seven-game playoff series that has been exploited time and time again. I doubt Utah can get enough for Gobert that puts the team over the edge with Mitchell anyway, but keeping him happy and keeping him in Utah is the most important thing. Trading Gobert after falling short in the playoffs yet again is probably the best way to keep him happy.
Other NBA stories:
We won’t know the full impact of Chris Paul’s injury for a while, but with a deep cast of skilled players, the Suns may have enough to thrive in spite of his absence.
Carmelo Anthony’s career resume has everything but an NBA championship. Why can’t we just love him for what he has accomplished?
Ja Morant officially has the most-watched NBA Instagram highlight of all time. Can you guess which one it is?
Everything is looking up for the Philadelphia 76ers and they’re going to be an absolute matchup nightmare in the playoffs.
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