The Eastern Conference is a war zone at the top.
The biggest name didn’t move. After two weeks of non-stop rumors about which team Anthony Davis would be suiting up for, and why that team won’t be the Celtics, the NBA trade deadline passed with Davis marooned on the Pelicans roster for at least the next five months.
Elsewhere in the league, the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors all added key pieces ahead of a playoff season that should be the most competitive the East has seen since LeBron James’ Miami Heat finished off the Kevin Garnett Celtics for good.
Philly made the biggest moves. First, it pulled off a 6-player trade with the Clippers, adding forward Tobias Harris, center Boban Marjanovic and forward Mike Scott, sending Wilson Chandler, two minor players, a 2020 first-round pick, the Heat’s unprotected 2021 first-rounder, and two second-rounders in return.
Harris isn’t a name that will inspire the casual NBA fan, but he is the star of this deal. He averaged 20.9 points and 7.9 rebounds per game for the Clippers this season, shooting 50 percent from the floor and 43 percent from deep. He can create off the dribble and can catch and shoot to fit a modern NBA offense. He’s a legitimate second option on a playoff team, and he’s now Philly’s fourth-best player, behind Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid in whichever order you like.
But Philly wasn’t done. On Thursday, minutes before the deadline, it shipped former No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz to Orlando. Fultz, once seen as a pillar of the 76ers’ bright future, has barely played after a bizarre injury rendered his shooting form unrecognizable as an NBA-level motion. In return for Fultz, the Sixers received swingman Jonathon Simmons and a first- and second-round pick. Simmons is a hard defender who is having a down year shooting, but in his time with the Spurs was a credible threat from deep. Playing for Orlando doesn’t do anyone’s game any favors.
Taken together, the trades solidify the 76ers lineup, which has been in a state of constant uncertainty due to the confusion surrounding Fultz. The Philly starting five of Simmons, J.J. Redick, Butler, Harris and Embiid is as talented as any, and the depth created by adding Marjanovic and Simmons to a thin bench sets up the Sixers for a deep playoff run.
The book had been written on Philly last May: Sag off of Ben Simmons, who cannot and will not under any circumstances shoot a jumper, and trust that Philly’s streaky supporting cast will eventually run cold. That no longer applies. Butler and Harris both can create shots for themselves, and their starters are as good as any in the league outside of Boston. Philly certainly thinks it’s the favorite to come out of the East. Whether that bears out will depend on how well they manage to distribute shots among four star scorers (as well as Redick), and how Simmons adapts in his second year facing playoff defenses.
For a while Wednesday night, it looked as though the Bucks had made a grave error. This offseason, the Bucks allowed Jabari Parker to leave as a free agent, and he signed with the Chicago Bulls. At the deadline, the Bulls turned Parker, forward Bobby Portis and a future second-round pick into Otto Porter.
Parker had a decent season for the Bulls, but he is a limited player. To crib Draymond Green’s now-iconic phrase, there are 82-game players and 16-game players — regular season and playoff performers — and Parker would have “82 games” printed on the back of his jersey if he were ever healthy enough to play a full season. Porter is the type of versatile, rangy young player that any playoff team could use, especially the Bucks.
But the Bucks made a pair of moves that sent forward Thon Maker to the Pistons in return for forward Stanley Johnson — a swap of underperforming high-upside prospects — and then sent Johnson and big man Jason Smith to the Pelicans for forward Nikola Mirotic and four second round picks.
Mirotic is a criminally underrated player in the league. He missed the first 23 games of the season for Chicago last season, but when he returned, he played so well that he threatened to sabotage the Bulls’ efforts to lose as many games as possible. He singlehandedly ruined the tank so badly that Chicago was forced to get him off the roster. He was traded to New Orleans, where he carried the team for stretches, and helped the Pelicans earn a 6-seed and knock off the 3-seed Portland Trail Blazers in the first round.
Now he’s on the Bucks, who own the best record in the league, and paired with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe and the rest of Milwaukee’s roster of tall, rangy players. He’s a perfect fit. Center Brook Lopez has turned himself into a threat from outside, but pairing him with Mirotic gives the Bucks shooting at both frontcourt positions to complement Antetokounmpo and Bledsoe driving and dishing. He also allows the Bucks to match up against smaller teams, who can often run the slow-footed Lopez off the floor.
The Bucks were already a strong pick to make the Finals, and plugged a hole in the rotation while adding flexibility to match up against exactly the kind of team it will meet later in the playoffs.
Toronto also added flexibility, but did so by upgrading the square peg on its roster into a better, more talented square peg, positioning the team for a run at a Florida Marlins-style championship.
For years, center Jonas Valanciunas has been a tough fit. The 7-foot center would be right at home in the NBA of 1995 — he’s an efficient inside scorer with slow feet — but has been rendered practically unplayable in matchups against smaller, faster teams. And these days, those are the teams you need to beat in the playoffs.
On Thursday, the Raptors moved Valanciunas, and swingmen CJ Miles and Delon Wright — both talented young pieces — for former All-NBA center Marc Gasol.
Gasol is a center’s center. He was once a Defensive Player of the Year level defender, and remains solid in that regard — at least when he’s engaged. He scores from the post, can shoot from outside, and is an exceptional passer. He’s also 34 years old and on the downside of his career. But even at this stage of his career, he’s better suited to playoff battles against smaller teams, and his passing and shooting will open up the floor for Toronto’s two stars, Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry.
Leonard, of course, will be a free agent after this season, and is rumored to be headed to the Los Angeles Clippers regardless of how this season goes. Lowry is a point guard on the wrong side of 30, and Serge Ibaka is a creaky 29. This is an all-in move for Toronto, but one that allows its best players all to share the floor at once. (Last season, the Raptors had the best bench unit in the league, which included Wright and Miles, but benches don’t win playoff series.)
Maybe Leonard is gone no matter what. Maybe trading young prospects for an aging center in an NBA that has done its best to legislate the position into extinction is a gamble. But if the Raptors were ever going to elevate their roster to a point that it was a legitimate title contender, this was what they had to do.
Toronto is currently second in the East and just made itself considerably better. Then again, so did its competition.
Well, most of the competition.
The Celtics got housed. They traded Jabari Bird, a low level prospect, to Atlanta for cash to free up a roster spot for a potential buyout. But the only good news for the Celtics was that Anthony Davis wasn’t traded before the deadline, giving them a shot to make the big man miserable this summer. Not much help to this season’s squad, though, which has struggled thanks to slippage by some key contributors and the cataclysmic play of Gordon Hayward. Good.