Fresh Starts: Who Needs One?

Orlando Magic guard Mario Hezonja (8) goes up for a shot against Boston Celtics center Tyler Zeller (44) during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Friday, Jan. 27, 2017, in Boston. Our writer believes Hezonja is being under appreciated as a player this season. (Elise Amendola/ AP)

The NBA trade deadline is in a couple months and the rumor mill is starting to churn faster and faster. Last week, the first deal of notice went down as the Milwaukee Bucks traded Miles Plumlee to the Charlotte Hornets for Spencer Hawes and Roy Hibbert. Not exactly eye-catching news, but it is the beginning of what will be an interesting stretch. In both conferences, the race for playoff spots is still quite tight.

Front Offices will have to decide if they want to forge ahead for a spot, or call it a year and head towards the lottery. This year there seems to be gluttony of teams at a crossroads. They have some skilled veterans, but also some promising young assets; and they can only commit to one group because holding the middle leads to purgatory—which in the NBA is a death sentence.

For numerous reasons, these players and these franchises need a shakeup.

Mario Hezonja, Orlando Magic: It’s almost criminal what the Magic have done with Hezonja. The No. 5 overall pick in 2015 is an offensive talent, but you wouldn’t know it based on how he’s been used. His minutes per game dropped from 17.9 last season to 9.9 this year under new head coach Frank Vogel. He just recently broke free of a stretch of four straight DNP’s; General Manager Rob Hennigan has built a roster of mid-level veterans that Hezonja does not fit in with. Clearly neither party is enjoying a beneficial relationship right now. Hezonja is a one-time Top Five Pick and seeing his potential buried on the bench is frustrating, as he is still an asset that ought to be moved to a team going in a younger direction.

Jahlil Okafor, Philadelphia 76ers: Sticking with the trend of offensive dependent talents from the 2015 draft, former No. 3 overall pick Jahlil Okafor has run his course with the resurgent 76ers. Okafor was an All-Rookie First Team selection last year, but just no longer fits with the current roster dynamic of the 76ers. He can’t find the court behind sensation Joel Embiid and backups Nerlens Noel and even Richaun Holmes seem to be held in higher regard by Philly’s decision makers. However, like Hezonja, Okafor was a top draft choice for a reason. Riding pine in the developmental stages of his career does no good for either party and a separation where the 76ers can pick up a different asset seems to be for the best. It appears they’re already on it as reports of an Okafor to the New Orleans Pelicans trade have been making the rounds.

Brook Lopez, Brooklyn Nets: A couple years ago a young Brook Lopez was probably quite happy when the Nets acquired stars Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Joe Johnson to contend for an NBA title. Flash forward to the present and that experiment didn’t quite pan out. Lopez is all that remains and the Nets have nothing to show for it. With a pick swap to Boston this year and their 2018 pick headed to the Celtics as well, unless Linsanity regains peak form and then some, the Nets appear to be cellar-dwellers for the foreseeable future. Lopez is just too good for that. He has All-Star Caliber talent and could be a strong option for a contending team. Trading him would likely help Brookyn recoup some assets as well.

New York Knicks: The self-appointed super team has flopped horribly and is trending dangerously towards being stuck in the NBA’s middle ground. They need to blow things up and soon. Carmelo Anthony is no longer a premier player in the NBA and surrounding him with washed up stars like Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Brandon Jennings might grab you an eight seed, but not much more. They have a center piece for the future in Kristaps Porzingis, who isn’t developing as well as he could in all likelihood due to their current predicament. Moving Melo and Co. won’t be easy and could be costly, but the Knicks need to take what they can get and start over. Even getting Kevin Love in a potential deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers seems foolish to me.

Minnesota Timberwolves: The Minnesota Timberwolves appear to have a strong young core with Andrew Wiggins, Karl Anthony-Towns and Zach Lavine. Supplemented by No. 4 overall pick Kris Dunn, who was underperformed, it’s a young nucleus that could rule the West in the future. Yet the Timberwolves seemed set on starting that process now. They appeared ready to gun for the eight seed but Zach Lavine’s recently ACL hopefully changed their thinking. They would be best served getting another talented player for their core in this year’s deep draft lottery. The best way to do that is find Ricky Rubio a new home in exchange for an asset and then tank, but in a way that allow Wiggins, Towns and Dunn to develop.

Phoenix Suns: The Suns are young and raw after using two top ten picks last year on Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss. It was expected they would need time to develop and their play this year has confirmed that. Bender is the youngest player in the entire league. The Suns also struck gold in 2015 taking Devin Booker No. 13 overall. He was the youngest rookie last season and exceeded expectations then, and is now averaging over 20 points per game this season. It could make for a very lethal trio going forward, and with the Suns playing miserably this year, they are poised to add another potential stud in this year’s draft. But they seem to be best-served going full 76ers mode and continuing to add numerous young players while “trusting the process.” Right now, they have too many decent NBA players on their roster to fully commit to that. Eric Bledsoe is having a career year this year, but he’s too old to be a part of their future. Tyson Chandler is near immovable because of his contract, but unless he’s here for the rebuild, he needs to go as well. Brandon Knight and P.J. Tucker have the skills and experience to be sent to contenders for assets. Make it happen, Ryan McDonough.

Everyone Else: It is shaping up to be a volatile and unpredictable trade market. For all the talk about the NBA being too top-heavy, this league’s talent base still seems to be at an all-time high, and many players who would able good trade pieces simply aren’t needed around the league. Still, franchises have decisions to make. The Chicago Bulls and Orlando Magic appear to have a roster that doesn’t mesh, so are they going to ride it out or get going on damage control? The Denver Nuggets have amassed a stockpile of young talent and assets, so will they take the time for them to continue coming into their own or will they go shopping for a superstar? The Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks were dead in the water a couple weeks ago, and now they have playoff aspirations. Should they buy or sell? Can the Pelicans and Kings do anything for their lone superstars? Will the Celtics sit on their trade chips?

It should be quite fun to see who ends up where in a couple of weeks. The entire makeup of the NBA could shift with one big move. In my mind, with the current landscape, a franchise is best off selling and going young – get your own core going. However, the scares the Thunder and Raptors put into the Warriors and Cavaliers during last year’s conference finals prove nothing is a given, and numerous teams are a move away from contention.


Matt Barresi is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at matthew.barresi@uconn.edu.