Sixty players were traded before the NBA trade deadline, using the Kristaps Porzingis blockbuster as the starting point. Anthony Davis was not one of them, but this still represented a significant shakeup, particularly at the top of the Eastern Conference — the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers all have reason to believe they got significantly better.
Five questions about what some of this movement means:
1. What’s the ripple effect in the East?
“I’d be disappointed for sure if we don’t get to the Eastern Conference Finals and do well,” Philadelphia general manager Elton Brand told reporters on Friday. That is a reasonable expectation based on the talent his front office has assembled, but it’s a bold thing to say this season. In order to reach the conference finals, the Sixers will presumably have to beat either the Raptors, Bucks or Boston Celtics in the second round. Adding Tobias Harris should give them a better shot, but it will not make it easy.
Toronto, Milwaukee and Boston all have their sights set on the Finals. Losing in the second round would be disappointing for any of them, especially if it’s a thrashing. There will be enormous pressure on the stars to make plays, the role players to make shots and the coaches to make adjustments. Harris, Marc Gasol and Nikola Mirotic are capable of swinging these series. Giddy up.
What happens after the Finals, though, is just as fascinating as who will make it there. Most notably, there is is an assumption that playoff success will influence the likelihood of Kyrie Irving re-signing with the Celtics and Kawhi Leonard re-signing with the Raptors. All of these teams, however, are looking at some degree of uncertainty — aside from Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks’ entire starting lineup, plus Mirotic, can leave in free agency. Brand said that the Sixers can afford to pay Harris and Jimmy Butler this summer, but that doesn’t mean it will happen.
2. What of the Sixers bench?
Harris was the headliner in Philadelphia, but the front office also turned over most of the supporting cast. Landry Shamet, Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala were all going to be a part of the playoff rotation if the Sixers hadn’t made all these moves — now, Brett Brown will have different options, with Mike Scott, Boban Marjanovic, Jonathon Simmons and James Ennis in the fold.
Scott provides floor spacing, making up for the loss of Muscala. Marjanovic is a situational player, but can be devastating in short bursts. Neither Simmons nor Ennis can replace Shamet’s shooting and movement, but together they make Philadelphia more athletic on the wing. Simmons will likely spend lots of his time defending opposing point guards, an area in which the Sixers have had some difficulty.
Wayne Ellington would have been a perfect buyout guy to play the Shamet role, but he is reportedly on his way to Detroit. If this is essentially what the roster will look like, can Philadelphia trust its bench in the playoffs? This is an important question, especially considering the depth of its competition.
3. Can Raptors get cohesive quickly?
I can’t imagine Pascal Siakam losing his starting job or moving to small forward, so Nick Nurse is going to have to ask Gasol or Serge Ibaka, who is averaging a career-high 16.1 points, to come off the bench. I’ll bet Ibaka makes the move, but still starts in certain matchups. Gasol should help the Raptors’ offensive flow so much that it offsets the downgrade in athleticism, and it’s not like Ibaka was playing a fast, furious, Montrezl Harrell-like role as a starter.
The tricky part is what effect this has on Ibaka. Kyle Lowry makes him better in a million ways, and while Nurse can still try to get them on the court together with Ibaka as a reserve, balancing everybody’s minutes could get complicated quickly. In the postseason, the ultra-competitive Gasol might have to take a backseat if other teams go small, and he will have to live with that.
The rest of the season isn’t so much about establishing a clear first and second unit, as the playoffs don’t work that way. It is about building chemistry between all the players who will get postseason minutes. Even though Gasol is a basketball genius, this might take time. Toronto doesn’t have much of that.
4. How good is this Lakers team?
Los Angeles didn’t get Davis, but it made a couple of small, savvy moves, adding shooters Reggie Bullock and the aforementioned Muscala in exchanged for Ivica Zubac, Michael Beasley, Svi Mykhailiuk and a 2021 second-round pick. The front office didn’t sacrifice any future flexibility, and it addressed a real issue. (It also created this issue by letting Brook Lopez go and prioritizing playmaking over shooting after signing LeBron James, but that’s neither here nor there.)
The Lakers also created a roster spot, and they are expected to consider signing Carmelo Anthony, per Woj. As badly as his stints in Oklahoma City and Houston ended, adding him as a Beasley replacement doesn’t seem like a big risk, except for the fact that the Lakers have barely any room for error. James’ groin injury set them back so much that they’re only one game above .500, 10th in the West and chasing the Kings and Clippers. It is unwise to doubt James, but the Lakers can’t just assume they will make the playoffs. They have to earn it.
5. How much does Barnes help Kings?
The Harrison Barnes deal was a clear win for the Dallas Mavericks, who gave themselves enough cap room to go star-hunting this summer, with Luka Doncic and Porzingis recruiting for them. It is less obvious how it will affect the Kings, who haven’t made the playoffs since Rick Adelman was their coach and Mike Bibby was their leading scorer. It is easy to say the eighth seed is nothing but a ticket to humiliation at the hands of the Golden State Warriors, but even hosting a couple of blowout losses would represent real progress for Sacramento. The front office thinks Barnes will meaningfully increase its chances.
Barnes gives Dave Joerger a big wing who can credibly defend 3s and 4s who posed problems for the Kings. His presence should not change anything about their style, and, in theory, he won’t take the ball out of De’Aaron Fox‘s hands too much. They wouldn’t be looking at this as a long-term partnership, though, if they saw him as merely a role player. Let’s see how efficient he is in this environment and how much his defensive versatility changes things — Sacramento is the type of team that could upset a higher seed, but it could also miss the playoffs.