The elephant in the room during Thursday night's action was everything that had transpired during the day. Thursday was the NBA's trade deadline, and it was an active one. The Cleveland Cavaliers went on a high-profile trading spree that saw them flip one-third of their roster, bringing in four new rotation players. Those trades, plus bigger transactions in the days leading up to the deadline, like the deals involving Blake Griffin and Nikola Mirotic, along with the re-signing of Lou Williams garnered most of the headlines. However, I want to highlight a seemingly smaller trade that I think will pay dividends for a player that is currently available in 95.9 percent of ESPN leagues.
The New York Knicks quietly participated in a three-team trade that brought Emmanuel Mudiay to Manhattan. I then, just as quietly, went and picked up Mudiay up in every league I'm playing that has instant free agency. It's a speculative add, sure, but one that I think has a reasonable chance of paying off.
After all, the Knicks lost their franchise big man, Kristaps Porzingis, to a torn ACL earlier this week. They were already in 11th place in the Eastern Conference, well out of the playoff hunt, even when Porzingis was playing. Now, it's uniformly assumed that the Knicks are "playing for the lottery" and preparing for the future. The Knicks took a young, raw lead guard in the lottery last season in Frank Ntilikina, but in ESPN's most recent mock draft New York was projected to select another point guard with their upcoming lottery pick. Why?
As ESPN's Jonathan Givony writes, "Ntilikina has had some nice rookie moments, but the Knicks are finding out that the long-armed, 6-foot-5 guard is seemingly better suited playing alongside a more dominant ball-handler and shot creator who can take some of the scoring responsibilities off his shoulders."
Enter Mudiay -- a lottery pick of the Denver Nuggets just three years ago and the seventh overall pick in the 2015 draft. Mudiay was raw at the time, having not played in college at all but instead spending a year playing overseas. Despite that inexperience, Mudiay stepped into the NBA as a starter at age 19, and turned in a solid rookie campaign during which he averaged 12.8 points, 5.5 assists, 3.4 rebounds, 1.0 steals, 0.5 blocks and 3.2 turnovers in 30.4 minutes per game.
The problem for Mudiay was that he was a terrible shooter, with a weak jumper and questionable shot selection. He shot only 36.4 FG% as a rookie, with 1.1 made 3-pointer (31.9 3P%), and 2.1 made free throws (67.0 FT%). Then, the following summer, the Nuggets drafted another lead guard, but this time one that was a pure shooter, Jamal Murray. Murray and Mudiay battled each other for playing time all last season, before Murray eventually beat him out. Now, the backcourt of the future in Denver is Murray, along with Gary Harris. Mudiay was expendable.
However, Mudiay has quietly been improving his shooting. Not dramatically, but enough that he no longer looks like a liability on that front. This season, per 36 minutes, Mudiay has averaged 17.2 points (40.1 FG%, 80.8 FT%), 5.8 assists, 4.5 rebounds, 1.0 steals, 1.8 3-pointers (37.3 3P%) and 3.4 turnovers. This would be a very, very respectable line if he were able to play those kinds of minutes. While there was no chance of that happening in Denver, the Knicks are a different story.
New York has been giving the majority of their point guard minutes to 34-year-old Jarrett Jack, a journeyman who was essentially out of the NBA before latching on with the Knicks. He is emphatically not the point guard of the future, but Ntilikina wasn't ready and the team was trying to field a credible squad around Porzingis. With Porzingis now done for the season, and Ntilikina either still not being ready -- or perhaps, as the draft write-up suggests, the Knicks are simply looking for more of an on-ball creator to pair with him -- it certainly appears that Mudiay should eventually earn a shot to run things down the stretch.
Maybe I'm reading this wrong and the Knicks traded for him simply to use off the bench. But, I'm going to grab him and stash him, because I've got a feeling that before this season is over, Mudiay is going to be putting up those per-36 numbers on somebody's fantasy team. It may as well be mine.
Tim Hardaway Jr., New York Knicks: 9 points (4-14 FG), 5 rebounds, 1 3-pointer, 1 TO
The Boston Celtics got back on the winning track on Thursday, edging the Wizards in overtime. Of note, Kyrie Irving played his second game after having missed three contests due to a quad contusion, and returned to his scoring ways with 28 points (9-19 FG, 9-10 FT), 6 assists, 5 rebounds, 1 steal, 1 block, 1 3-pointer and 3 TO. Marcus Morris had a solid line with 15 points, 8 rebounds, 1 steal and 1 3-pointer in 36 minutes off the bench. Newly signed Greg Monroe made his Celtics debut, scoring 5 points (2-5 FG, 1-3 FT) with 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and 1 TO in 20 minutes off the bench.
The Orlando Magic traded starting point guard Elfrid Payton away for a 2nd round pick on Thursday, which left a vacuum at the position, filled by D.J. Augustin (89.5 percent availability). He started and scored 18 points (5-14 FG, 6-6 FT) with 9 assists, 3 rebounds, 2 3-pointers and 2 steals in 35 minutes of action. Shelvin Mack also played 22 minutes off the bench, but Augustin appears to be the clear leader for the starting job out of the gates.
On Thursday, the Knicks were without Enes Kanter (oral surgery) and on Wednesday they traded away Willy Hernangomez. Add to that the Porzingis injury and this squad had very little frontcourt depth on Thursday. Michael Beasley led the team with 21 points (7-13 FG, 7-7 FT), 7 rebounds, 3 steals, 1 assist, 1 block and 1 turnover. Kyle O'Quinn was solid, if unspectacular, as the starting center with 9 points (4-10 FG, 1-2 FT), 8 rebounds, 2 blocks and 1 assist. Hardaway was disappointing as he did very little, despite this being an opportunity for him to step forward as "the man" for New York.
It's starting to become "a thing" that the Raptors have such a productive bench, their starter minutes may are beginning to suffer. DeRozan and Kyle Lowry combined for only 15 points on 4-of-21 shooting from the field, but Toronto still won by 25 points on the strength of five double-digit scoring efforts off the bench. Jonas Valanciunas led the team with 18 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, 2 3-pointers and 1 blocked shot in 24 minutes from the starting lineup, but Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl, CJ Miles, Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet all had 10-plus points and respectable overall lines off the bench.
Injuries of note
Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony both sat out Thursday's game against the Lakers with ankle injuries. However, both had participated in the morning shootaround, albeit in a limited capacity, indicating that the injuries probably aren't very serious. Still, neither player was able to go on Thursday and should be considered as questionable moving forward.. Raymond Felton and Jerami Grant started in their places.
Analytics advantage for Friday
It's simple arithmetic. The Cavaliers traded six players away on Thursday, and the replacements that they got are unlikely to play on Friday. As such, Cleveland will have far fewer options than usual to produce, meaning that they are likely to get significant production from typically unexpected sources. Jose Calderon is likely to start at point guard, with the only other point guard expected to be active being London Perrantes, who has averaged 11.9 points and 7.6 assists in the G-League this season.
Similarly, JR Smith and Kyle Korver are the only shooting guards expected to be active, Cedi Osman and John Holland could get run with Jeff Green at forward, and Ante Zizic is the only big man besides Tristan Thompson. Yes, LeBron James is going to get his, but against a weak Atlanta defense, there's a high likelihood that there is going to be an abundance of streamable production out there from a bevy of waiver wire residents ready to get at least one night in the spotlight. That said, with so few teammates tonight, James may have to turn in a superhuman effort in order to pull out a win.
Top players to watch tonight
This is old-home night in the NBA, so there are a lot of different "revenge narratives" to consider. Jimmy Butler and Zach LaVine will face their old teams when the Minnesota Timberwolves travel to face the Chicago Bulls. Blake Griffin and Tobias Harris will see their old squads as the LA Clippers travel to meet the Detroit Pistons. Long ago, Jrue Holiday was drafted by and traded away from the Philadelphia 76ers, the team he faces on Friday. Each of these matchups catches my eye.