- The East arms race got a bit tighter during an active NBA trade deadline—the Raptors, Bucks and the 76ers all made significant additions to their rosters. So which newly acquired players have had the biggest impact on their teams?
The Eastern Conference crown is now up for grabs for the first time since LeBron James took his talents to South Beach in 2010, with four teams likely to battle for the conference crown in May. The wide-open field led to an active trade deadline in early February, and while Boston stood pat—likely hoarding its assets for a potential Anthony Davis deal—Toronto, Milwaukee and Philadelphia each made a significant addition to their respective rosters. The Raptors beefed-up their rotation by acquiring Marc Gasol from Memphis. The Bucks and 76ers went the wing route, with Nikola Mirotic joining Giannis and Co. while Tobias Harris created a Big 4 in Philly.
It’s far too early to declare which addition will make the biggest impression on the East race, but we’ve now seen a large enough sample to outline each player’s role as the postseason approaches. We at The Crossover assessed the early impact of Philly, Toronto and Milwaukee’s deadline additions, eyeing each player’s respective future in their new situation.
Tobias Harris, 76ers
Philadelphia gave up the greatest haul of the three East contenders at the deadline, shipping a pair of first-round picks and second-year guard Landry Shamet to the Clippers. The price tag was steeper than many expected given Harris’ expiring contract, but the Tennessee product’s early output is likely to make Philly’s deal worthwhile.
There have yet to be growing pains for Harris and Philadelphia through eight games. Harris tallied 20-plus points in five of his first seven contests, shooting 55.1% from the field and 45% from three after Thursday night’s win against Oklahoma City. He's been a nightmare to defend in transition, pairing with Ben Simmons to take advantage of scrambled matchups off misses. Harris will blow past a cross-matched big on one possession, then post-up a smaller wing on the block the next time down the floor. He’s evolved into an impressive perimeter shooter since 2017, canning 41.1% of threes in 2017-18 and 42.5% this season. Ben Simmons refuses to stretch beyond the arc. Joel Embiid has dipped below 30% from three, and Jimmy Butler is a middling threat. Harris’ marksmanship is a necessary antidote to Philly’s often-clogged half court.
Philadelphia has stated it plans to re-sign both Harris and Butler during July’s free-agency, willing to designate four maximum contract slots for Embiid, Simmons and each of the 2018-19 additions. Yet if Sixers ownership balks at the potential price tag, keeping Harris over Butler would prove prudent. Harris is three years younger than Butler, and without the Tom Thibodeau tread on his tires. He’s a better shooter and a bigger wing, though Butler outpaces Harris on the defensive end. Harris would be the more surprising rental compared to Butler, but any potential commitments can wait until this summer. For now, Harris has provided Philly a legitimate offensive boost, adding another weapon to the East’s best starting five.
Marc Gasol, Raptors
A peek at Big Spain’s game log since coming to Toronto would suggest he’s struggling to find his niche up north. Gasol is averaging just 9.4 points and four rebounds per game with the Raptors, dropping below both averages in Memphis in 2018-19. Gasol has dipped to 20 minutes per game with Toronto, and with Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam up fron, a fade from relevance is understandable. Father Time remains undefeated.
Look closer, though, and Gasol has brought out the best in the Raptors’ attack, albeit in limited minutes. Gasol is averaging a career-high 9.3 assists per 100 possessions with Toronto, second on the team behind Kyle Lowry. The Grizzlies’ legend is an upgrade over Jonas Valanciunas, noticeably so as a fulcrum below the foul line. Gasol is dumping passes to a streaking Siakam and ping-ponging the ball from the paint to the perimeter. Toronto previously operated with two distinct offenses: a fast, assist-heavy attack with Kawhi Leonard on the bench, and a slowed, isolation driven offense with Leonard on the floor. Both were effective, and Leonard’s strength and impressive mid-range game lends itself to a deliberate pace. But the deceleration seemed to impact Toronto’s complimentary pieces, specifically Kyle Lowry. Gasol has enlivened the offense in the half court, re-engaging Lowry in the process. Toronto’s core pieces aside from Leonard have benefited greatly from the Gasol acquisition.
Gasol has experienced a marked decline in the past two seasons. The former Memphis headliner is now a complimentary piece, although one with a legitimate chance at the Finals. Kawhi Leonard will serve as Toronto’s centerpiece in April and May. Siakam and Lowry will soak up a large share of possessions. But don’t be so quick to shove Gasol to the periphery. He’s a grizzled postseason veteran, and still among the league’s top playmaking centers.
Nikola Mirotic, Bucks
There was little mystery as to how Mirotic would be deployed in Milwaukee. Like Brook Lopez, Mirotic is an ideal pick-and-pop threat with the Bucks, serving as another quality perimeter option in four-out lineups centered around Giannis Antetokounmpo. Mirotic’s spacing extends multiple feet behind the three point line. He’s No. 11 in the league in made threes from 25-29 feet, canning deep triples at the same rate as Klay Thompson and D’Angelo Russell. Every foot Mirotic steps behind the line is another foot of room for Giannis near the tin. Dedicating defensive resources to both players is increasingly difficult.
Mirotic had his best night as a Buck on Wednesday, pouring in 21 points on five threes. Mike Budenholzer created a wonderful offense in Milwaukee, maximizing the space and shooting around Giannis. Mirotic is a natural extension of that vision, and he adds another headache for teams gearing up to stop Antetokounmpo in the postseason.