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State of the League
The arms race heads West
It wasn’t quite the giddy heights of total transaction blitzkrieg of the 2015 NBA trade deadline that spawned this reaction from Adrian Wojnarowski, but there’s been a definite shift in the NBA over the last 48 hours. Big names have abandoned ship and former stars have returned home. Welcome to the state of the league address.
In the NBA, as in all of professional sports, there’s one place that you never want to be as a franchise, and that’s firmly planted in the swamplands of mediocrity, shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic until you feel that sweet sweet dopamine of peaking (usually the seventh seed).
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Obviously the goal of professional sports is to win. Ground-breaking I know. But the NBA is uniquely positioned through its draft to provide two avenues out of the misery zone of the middle.
You can race to the top, or you can sink to the bottom. Both, for some arcane reason, are extremely desirable to your average high level executive.
For many years now the Western Conference has long held the perception of being the stronger conference. Eight of the last 13 NBA champions have been from the West after all, and for years the threshold of scraping in as a 7th-8th seed was far beyond what was necessary in the West.
That narrative had begun to shift in recent memory with the rise of the young Celtics and Sixers, the championship Bucks and Kevin Durant’s Brooklyn dalliance, but if anything has been learned in recent times it’s that the arms race has again fled west.
Looking at the top of the West, only the surprisingly well-placed Sacramento Kings didn’t aggressively hunt auxiliary pieces to help key their championship aspirations. Sure, guys like Thomas Bryant and Luke Kennard are hardly needle-movers on their own, but as final pieces in the contending puzzle they help elevate their teams by providing points of difference to elite yet unbalanced rosters (legitimate centre depth for Denver, consistent bench shooting for Memphis).
Briefly on Denver, the Thomas Bryant addition, while not grabbing any headlines, might end up being one of the more altering additions of the deadline. It’s no secret the Nuggets have had a litany of garbage backing up Jokic, so getting a legit big man who plays full throttle, rebounds hard, seals inside with great position, demands the ball and can hit threes is a huge boon. Not only will it give the Nuggets a full 48 minutes of competent center play, but it also allows Denver to gradually reduce some workload off Jokic leading into the playoffs. In years past he’s looked worn down by the time May comes around, that shouldn’t be the case now.
And there’ll be some confusion on the dumping of Bones Hyland. Honestly, two seconds is a perfectly fine price. He’s under 40% from the field (but 37% from three) with an incredibly high usage rate, lacklustre defence and rumoured locker room clashes with Michael Malone. The Nuggets have a bevy of competent role guards in Ish Smith, Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, they’ll be fine.
The obvious leadoff though here is Brooklyn funding the war through the gifts of two All-NBA and future Hall of Fame talents (maybe projecting a bit with Kyrie here). Considering the untenability of the situation in New York City and the utterly crumbling pedestal upon which Brooklyn’s leverage stood, the gains made by the Nets to cover themselves are nothing short of admirable.
Sure, are Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Dorian Finney-Smith and Spencer Dinwiddie collectively as talented as Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving? No, not even close. But once the reality of the trade requests were made public domain, recouping a DPOY talent in Bridges, another elite three and D wing in Finney-Smith, a capable ball handler in Dinwiddie and an elite catch and shoot threat with burgeoning dribble attack game in Johnson is as well as they could’ve done.
On the Western front, Phoenix have well and truly pushed their chips into the middle of the table by betting on a Chris Paul-Devin Booker-Kevin Durant-Deandre Ayton foursome. Giving up Bridges, a fan favourite elite defender whose offensive game made tremendous strides this season while both Paul and Booker were out, sucks, but that’s the price of success.
On the face of it, it always felt like whatever package Durant was going to get was going to be below market value. That’s the reality of dealing in superstars. It’s objectively hilarious that the price Durant fetched was lower than the cooked haul Minnesota gave up for Rudy Gobert in the summer, but such is life.
On the court, Phoenix figure to be scary come playoff time. The Suns are currently a game clear of the play in tournament at this stage, on a crash course to meet Kyrie Irving’s Mavericks in the first round. When push comes to shove, the Suns are well equipped to handle any defence thrown at them. Double teaming leaves a legit threat open, while zones allow three of the best midrange shooters in the game to feast. Away from those three though, Ayton figures to have more space than ever down low, while Torrey Craig and Damion Lee provide valuable role depth on the wings.
Dallas to me are a little murkier with the eventual co-existence of Luka and Kyrie, but they too figure to solidify firmly in the playoff picture. The losses of Finney-Smith and Dinwiddie open up valuable minutes for Josh Green and Jaden Hardy, two impressive young players, while more will be asked of Reggie Bullock to cover the wings.
Most intriguing for Dallas is Christian Wood remaining on the roster past the deadline. A valuable big man who can score from any zone and protect the rim, Wood has been in trade rumours every year since his stint with the Pistons pre-pandemic. The question of Wood’s willingness to accept a tertiary role is probably somewhat overblown, but still a real thing.
The top of the East was decidedly less exhilarating, with the Bucks and Sixers reinforcing deep rotations with the addition of three and D wings in Jae Crowder and Jalen McDaniels respectively. Crowder in Milwaukee seemed like a foregone conclusion for a while now. The Bucks have been crying out for help on the wing to ease the loads on Middleton and Giannis while simultaneously not having to rely so much on Grayson Allen, and the former Marquette standout fits that bill to a tee.
I am probably more intrigued by the addition of Jalen McDaniels to Philly than is necessary but I’ve been a fan of both McDaniels siblings for a long time now. Matisse Thybulle, now in Portland, has been a great defensive servant to the Sixers for years now, but the Sixers bench was crying out for a more multi-dimensional wing which McDaniels provides. To me, McDaniels provides a similar level of defensive versatility to Thybulle but is streets ahead on offense, a valuable commodity.
Similar to Denver and Memphis in the West, New York and Atlanta have also added rotation level players to help shore up deficiencies for a late season charge. Most of the movement and jostling in the East is now focused on that play in range, and again, while Josh Hart and Saddiq Bey aren’t special on their own, depth on the wing is of vital importance in playoff situations.
All of this isn’t to say there weren’t several Black Friday sales that were left unattended though. All of John Collins, OG Anunoby and Bojan Bogdanovic were varying degrees of available throughout the past week. Detroit have been constant in their messaging around the price for Bojan (see: high), but Anunoby and Collins were both well and truly in the shop window.
According to Shams Charania, the trade of Kevin Durant to the West may have shifted the thinking for several of those play in teams in the Eastern Conference. There’s a perception the East is now wide open below the Cavaliers at fourth punctuated by the lack of selling done by the likes of Atlanta (who picked up Bey), Toronto (who re-acquainted themselves with Jakub Poeltl) and Chicago (who made their fans mad by doing nothing either way).
Personally I’m not sure anything those mid-level Eastern teams have done is enough to really catapult themselves into serious top four conversations. I know there’s a feeling the Nets will slide a bit nationally but I’m not sure. They’re still comfortably a top six team in my mind in the conference, while the likes of Toronto and Chicago still have glaring issues to fix.
If I was to bet on one team to move up it would be the Knicks. I’m a huge fan of Josh Hart’s skillset and his profile will be a big help to the Knicks whether he starts or comes off the bench. One of the best rebounding guards in the league, he is also a very useful connector piece with his passing and ability to run small pick and rolls, plus his outside threat as a shooter is enough to provide gravity around the likes of RJ Barrett, Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle.
The flipside of the arms race to the top is the slow sink to the bottom.
The clear four worst teams all sold off major pieces of their rotation for middling returns in what is a clear sign of a willingness to punch a ticket to the ping pong party.
Detroit giving away Saddiq Bey, a functional wing with a threatening, if inconsistent, offensive game during a season where they can’t score in a brothel, is certainly a move for the future, especially when all you’re getting is a Marvin Bagley clone in an oft-hurt, left handed, disappointing second overall pick big man in James Wiseman.
Mason Plumlee and Jalen McDaniels were sold off by Charlotte for little more than cap relief, and a chance to open up minutes for the young center rotation of Mark Williams and Nick Richards.
The Spurs, if it wasn’t obvious enough, are committing to a youth movement led by Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell, Tre Jones and Jeremy Sochan. Josh Richardson and Jakub Poeltl are fine role players but their skillsets and timelines did not fit this Spurs rebuild, and moving them both allows Popovich to better assess his mishmash of youth moving forward.
In earth shattering developments, Eric Gordon is no longer on the Rockets, returning to the Clippers. It was painfully clear he was fed up being mired in yet another lost season, and by removing him the Rockets can fully hand over ball hog duties to Jalen Green. In all seriousness, this should allow the ball to be in Alperen Sengun’s hands a lot more, while Daishen Nix and Josh Christopher could also see time running the show.
The flattened lottery means the guarantee of being bad and landing top odds are now not as enticing, but for a prospect like Wembanyama, if you ain’t last you’re…last. We’ll workshop that one. Scoot Henderson is a nice consolation prize at least.
Couple of mailbag questions to finish up here.
In terms of trades, there’s maybe one that Troy Weaver has enacted since his tenure began as Pistons GM where I’ve gone “that’s a great deal” and that was the move this past offseason to grab Jalen Duren. Maybe the flier on Hamidou Diallo falls in this basket too in hindsight.
But there’s been this inherent sense of trust around Weaver that he never really earned. Fans recognised he inherited a roster that needed to be torn down to the studs and rebuilt, to which he’s largely done a good job of. Acquiring core talents like Cade Cunningham, Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren while finding useful role players later in the draft like Bey, Isaiah Stewart, Isaiah Livers and Saben Lee can’t be overlooked.
As a drafter, Weaver has done a fine job. Cunningham and Ivey were obvious picks at the time, but his later work was his calling card. In the trade market, there’s been a lot of wait and see with his moves. At some point that needs to develop into tangible gains.
I alluded to this earlier but I think the KD and Kyrie prices were somewhat an overcorrection to the haul Rudy commanded in the summer. Minnesota were absolutely desperate for another star to pair with Anthony Edwards and KAT and paid as such to acquire Gobert.
That being said, I don’t necessarily think Brooklyn were ever going to get much more than what they ended up getting for both stars. It was a pretty public split from Kyrie, and the fractures with KD first appeared in the summer when he requested a trade only to be talked out of it after a face to face with Nets brass.
So yes I think it’s probably a bit of column A, bit of column B on that front. The Rudy trade package was utterly ridiculous, the Nets probably had to sell for 85 cents on the dollar for their stars, and the truth is somewhere in the middle.
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