- With LeBron James on the Lakers, the pressure to win now has amped up in the East. That much was obvious on trade deadline, when the Raptors, 76ers and Bucks all stocked up in hopes of making a Finals run.
The Eastern Conference wakes on Friday morning to a brave new world, reshaped by the raw power of the trade deadline. Of the four most dangerous teams in the East's battle royale, three made considerable upgrades in recent days, all without much immediate cost. No longer does the shadow of LeBron James hang over the East, quashing upstart teams and discouraging aggressive roster moves.
Opportunity is in the ether. A trip to the Finals is in play for the first time in nearly a decade, and the most viable contenders to break through to June clearly regarded that chance as an achievement in itself. The Warriors are a problem to be addressed in their own time. For now, there's enough at stake within the conference—and enough of a power creep among its best teams—to keep our collective focus on the East in the months to come.
Deadline fever spread among these teams like a contagion. Philadelphia was afflicted first, trading three role players (Landry Shamet, Wilson Chandler, and Mike Muscala) and four draft picks for Tobias Harris. The very idea of the Sixers giving up multiple rotation players in a trade for one—as they did earlier this season in dealing Robert Covington and Dario Šarić for Jimmy Butler—is striking considering just how many runs, quarters, and games Philadelphia has lost on account of its lack of depth.
The actual dynamic in play here is more complicated. While adding Harris alone doesn't make the Sixers a deeper team, it makes their reserve units entirely more functional. Getting another go-to scorer on the floor makes even marginal bench types more viable by lifting the responsibility they are least equipped to handle. Those pass-heavy possessions that slowly spiral down the drain could now be channeled through Harris, who over the past few seasons has established himself as one of the better "random" scorers in the game. No scripted action is required—only the room to work and functional ball-handlers to play off of.
Don't underestimate the impact of Brett Brown getting another 35 consistently good minutes to pencil into his rotation. Nor should we overlook Philadelphia's subsequent deals: a second-round pick swap for a usable wing in James Ennis; and a move to land Jonathon Simmons, a protected first-round pick, and a second round-pick for the enigmatic Markelle Fultz. The end of the Fultz era is worthy of its own thoughtful consideration, though in the moment it actually brings the Sixers a rotation player where it had none. Whatever Fultz might someday be, it seems improbable he would ever become it as a member of the Sixers. Baggage had overwhelmed his potential. There will always be a cost involved in bailing so soon on the No. 1 overall pick, though to move him is in itself a clarification. There can no longer be any doubt as to where Fultz stands, save as a member of the Orlando Magic. Philadelphia moves on, and in the immediate, moves upward.
Milwaukee was next in line, where it managed to scrounge up enough second-round picks to trade for Nikola Mirotić. This was quite the managerial feat. Many of the Bucks' better players are on expiring contracts themselves, meaning they would have little appeal to the down-shifting Pelicans. Four second-round picks (only one of which was Milwaukee's own) instead served as the deal's enticement, while Stanley Johnson and Jason Smith providing enough outgoing salary to make a deal legal. To give up four draft picks of any kind is no small thing. Yet this is exactly the sort of occasion that makes stockpiling random second-round selections worthwhile, and the perfect kind of play for a team that was already at the top of its conference. There was no need for the Bucks to actually shake up their roster, but to improve it outright is unimpeachable.
Mirotić is a better playoff option than Thon Maker (whom the Bucks flipped earlier in the week) or Ersan Ilyasova, which gives him a natural place in the rotation without much offsetting cost. The fit could not be cleaner. Any shooting big could make sense in Mike Budenholzer's offense, but Mirotić, who held his own guarding a battering ram like Jusuf Nurkić in the 2018 playoffs, brings a particular value in small-ball lineups. The fact that Brook Lopez might not be fit for every matchup was previously seen as a liability. Given this move and the emergence of D.J. Wilson, that now hardly seems the case.
Toronto, in its own way, followed suit. Even when healthy, Jonas Valančiūnas had been a conditional starter for the Raptors—a traditional big useful largely in countering particular opponents. Using Valančiūnas as the ballast of a deal for Marc Gasol makes the Raptors that much more agile. Whatever burly advantage can be gained from Valančiūnas comes just the same with Gasol, along with playmaking, confident shooting, and more refined defensive instincts. What Toronto has done is broaden its safety net. Pascal Siakam will inevitably be put to the test in the postseason, where his inconsistent shooting could present as more of a liability. For as well as Serge Ibaka has shot the ball this season, his last playoff run proved to be a harrowing experience. Gasol, at 34, comes with his own limitations. They're simply different enough from the concerns Toronto would have with its other bigs to make the entire team better for it. Two of the three can be effective most nights, which is all most playoff teams really need.
As much as it hurts to give up Delon Wright and C.J. Miles in the deal, they are, pragmatically speaking, the fourth-best guard on the team and a reserve specialist. Life for a contender rolls on without them, particularly when a player like Gasol can be had. To acquire a player like Gasol midseason almost always requires some real and meaningful concession. Circumstances, in this case, dictated otherwise; Memphis was eager enough to move Gasol before the deadline (or really before the summer, when Gasol could decline his player option to become a free agent) that it allowed Toronto to keep the bulk of its rotation intact.
None of this is good news for the Celtics, the only of the East's top teams to stand pat at the deadline. Though frankly, the pressure closes in from all sides. Milwaukee can't feel as secure in their top seed and dominant point differential as they might like. Toronto has a lot at stake as it tries to win over Kawhi Leonard, and a tougher road to the kind of playoff success that might convince him. Philadelphia now has two high-end free agents of its own and a loaded lineup to balance before April. The gauntlet begins today, and all involved will be tested.