Let’s revive an old Grantland tradition and ask who’s on notice after the whirlwind of the last 48 hours.
The top of the East
Assuming Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Boston and Toronto all advance, I’m not sure there will have ever been a playoff round with more potential to swing superstar free agency than the conference semifinals in the East. Two of these four must lose. Lose badly, and eyes will wander.
• Even the placid Bucks have four starters entering free agency. Keeping all of them might vault Milwaukee into the luxury tax. Are the Bucks willing to do that if they lose in the second round? How would Giannis Antetokounmpo — up for a supermax after next season — react if Milwaukee were to let the wrong person walk?
Amid trade mania, the Bucks have quietly coalesced into a juggernaut. They know who they are. They have found the sweet spot where guys play with freedom and confidence but don’t break from the team construct. They can shapeshift into any lineup type. They are No. 4 in offense and No. 1 in defense, with the scoring margin of a champion. Coaches and players say privately that they feel something special brewing — something some of them have never felt.
Adding Nikola Mirotic makes them even more malleable. (Outbidding the Sixers, who offered two second-round picks, per sources, probably made it sweeter. The Sixers and Pelicans also discussed the general framework of a Mirotic-Markelle Fultz swap before Philadelphia acquired Tobias Harris, sources say. It is unclear how far those talks would have advanced otherwise.) He unlocks more Giannis-at-center lineups, and can even jostle with some centers himself to spare Antetokounmpo wear and tear.
• The other three teams have four combined max-level free agents in Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, Kyrie Irving, and Kawhi Leonard. The last two — along with Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant — will determine the league’s balance of power.
The vibes out of Toronto over the last six weeks have been just a little off. The relationship between Kyle Lowry and Masai Ujiri is clearly not hunky-dory. It never has been. Lowry misses DeMar DeRozan. I’m not sure any of that bleeds onto the floor. Lowry will play his game when it matters. But back injuries and Leonard’s load management have short-circuited Toronto’s chances to build chemistry. Marc Gasol is an undeniable upgrade, but he further unsettles their rotation.
(Charlotte came close to acquiring Gasol before some last-minute haggling, per league sources. The Hornets had a lottery-protected first-round pick ready for most of this week, sources say. Losing Gasol hurts, but they get to keep that pick, and the East is so bad they may limp into the playoffs anyway. Just pray for Kemba Walker, who has zero help.)
Gasol brings a high-IQ game that can calm Toronto’s offense in crunch time of playoff games. Toronto got him without sacrificing a first-round pick, or any essential part of their future. (Delon Wright could do well in Memphis, but he was a luxury for Toronto. The return beyond that is uninspiring for Memphis considering Gasol is a franchise icon. The Grizzlies in the end may have moved a year late.) He is one of the league’s very best one-on-one post defenders — an ideal antidote to Joel Embiid. He can drag Embiid away from the rim on the other end.
But does Gasol supplant Serge Ibaka as Toronto’s full-time starting center? The Raptors have thrived with Ibaka there. He can play some alongside Gasol, but it may be too late to shift him back to power forward in the starting lineup. Doing that would slide Pascal Siakam to the wing, and Danny Green to the bench. Siakam can play any nominal position, but the Siakam-Ibaka-Gasol trio is a little antiquated. Toronto has gotten where it is by being rangy and fast, heavy with switchy wings. Some rivals are hoping they trade speed for size.
The right answer might be starting Gasol and Siakam, and I would guess that is where they land. Can they sell that to Ibaka?
Maybe the Raptors can toggle between Gasol and Ibaka depending on matchups, as they did with Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas. Can they sell that to Gasol? Regardless, Toronto is all-in.
• Philly is too, having traded a lot of its war chest for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. The Clippers did well to snare two first-rounders for Harris on an expiring contract. Teams could not acquire first-round picks, even for good players, without swallowing bad money.
New Orleans wanted a first-rounder for Mirotic; they got four second-rounders instead — strong return, still. Washington had one Otto Porter deal on the table that would have brought back a low first-rounder, but only if they took on money extending beyond this season, sources say. The Nets and Grizzlies briefly discussed a swap of Allen Crabbe — earning $19 million next season — and Denver’s first-rounder for the Garrett Temple/JaMychal Green pairing, sources say. Memphis, facing tax concerns, instead flipped those two for Avery Bradley‘s semi-expiring deal — and no picks.
Given that it took zero first-round picks to get Mirotic, Gasol, Otto Porter, and Harrison Barnes, the Sixers likely overpaid for Harris. The price telegraphs that they view Harris as more than a rental. He is better than those other guys. Philly’s new starting five is loaded. How wonderful to have Harris as your fourth-best player.
Big Fours are rare. The financial cost is enormous — more than most teams can bear. Typical fourth starters don’t handle the ball as much as Harris likes. He’s a great shooter, and there are no diminishing returns on shooters. But there will be diminishing returns here, no matter how rigidly Philly staggers their five starters.
Golden State’s Big Four works because one almost doesn’t have to dribble (Klay Thompson), and a second is content averaging six points per game if he gets to pass a lot (Draymond Green). The fit in Philly will be trickier, and there is a lot riding on them figuring it out in short order. No matter what they say today, it is not a lock that they max out both Butler and Harris this summer. (Both are good bets, and maybe certainties, to get max contracts somewhere. There are just too many slots out there now.)
The playoffs will be pivotal.
• Boston did nothing, but they won the deadline by virtue of the Lakers and Pelicans doing nothing with Anthony Davis. The Celtics are 25-9 since their 10-10 start. Now all they have to do is perform well enough in the postseason to coax Irving into staying. That became an even taller order today.
It’s possible Boston has the lowest game-to-game ceiling of all four teams, though it’s hard to tell until we’ve seen them all play a fair bit. But they feel like the team among this group with the lowest margin of error — the one that needs to play every second at peak urgency.
Kevin Durant and the champs
Durant’s bizarre, finger-wagging press conference laid bare that he is struggling with the frenzy surrounding his impending free agency. Durant joined a 73-win team and proceeded to sign two short-term contracts. His business partner tweeted, not entirely facetiously, that he would like to run the Knicks someday. This frenzy is what happens.
If Durant frets, it will seep into the locker room in some way. It has to. It already did, when Draymond Green unleashed an in-game tirade that fractured Golden State’s chemistry.
This team should be too talented to lose four times in seven games to anyone. They are 32-6 in the postseason since acquiring Durant.
But all it takes is one two-game blip for a series to become A Moment. It happened last season against the Rockets, and Durant, existing almost outside of Golden State’s offense and missing a lot, was at the center of some weird malaise. (Houston had a lot to do with that. Had they won that series, they would have earned it.) The league is waiting to see what happens if anyone manages to punch the Warriors in the mouth early in a series — if adversity exposes lingering tension. How will they react if they are down 2-1, facing Game 4 on the road?
I mean, they’ll probably win. They have two of the league’s three best players and three other All-Star types. But that is the league’s hope — that they might break apart at the wrong moment.
The outcome will determine the degree to which Boston and the Lakers have competition for Davis. If the Knicks win, New York has a decision to make. If the Clippers miss the playoffs, they will have a 2 or 3 percent chance to vault into the top five. If the Kings miss the playoffs and somehow land the No. 1 pick — chances of that range from 0.5 percent to 1.5 percent — that selection slides from Boston to Philadelphia, creating another potential out-of-nowhere Davis suitor.
New York’s Kiddos
The Pelicans will be watching Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, and Dennis Smith Jr. Knox looks the part. He’s shooting a hair below league average from deep, but on a diet of attempts — curling off screens, semi-contested — that suggests a good shooter who can survive in highly competitive contexts. He can attack a bit off the bounce, and has a nice floater. Knox has a long way to go defensively, but that was expected.
Smith has passed Ntilikina as a prospect. The league got too far down on Smith too fast. He has issues — dancing with the ball, so-so decision-making, lax defense — but those are typical of young point guards. Smith is a legit athlete who can do some rare things.
Ntilkina’s defense, solid across multiple positions, will get him only so far if he remains one of the worst offensive players in the league.
If the Knicks don’t get the No. 1 pick and have dreams of Davis, they need the Pelicans to love one of these guys.
The Bulls will crow that they have a frontline of the future in Porter, Lauri Markkanen, and Wendell Carter Jr. The Markkanen-Carter duo is going to be good — perfect for the modern NBA. Porter is solid. Some front offices think he’s much better than that, though they worry about his hip; it depressed Porter’s trade value.
He’s also four and six years older than Markkanen and Carter, respectively. I didn’t mind Chicago cutting into its cap space to sign a winning player. No one big was going there. Cap room has loosened around the league; absorbing someone else’s bad money won’t be as profitable.
But Porter is a complementary player paid like a star. He completes a good team. He does not make a bad team good even if his salary suggests he should be able to.
The Bulls need someone to wrest control of their team. Porter can’t do that. Chicago’s biggest on-court problem is that their guards have shown no indication they will grow into the sort of players who might.
Dunn shows flashes, but he can’t shoot; no one guards him when LaVine has the ball. He’s an average playmaker. LaVine averages four assists per game despite having the ball all the time. In Year 5, he is still lazing into off-the-dribble long 2s like this:
It is lost on no one within the Bulls that they are 4-2 under Jim Boylen when LaVine has been out and 3-21 otherwise. That stat could mean nothing, but it has been noted.
Dunn was there to be had at the deadline, sources say. LaVine was not, but Chicago probably would have listened had someone overwhelmed them — which no one was going to do.
Washington’s brain trust
Over six weeks, the Wizards made a win-now move — Kelly Oubre for Trevor Ariza — and then pivoted into semi-tankery to duck the tax. They effectively salary-dumped a 25-year-old wing — Porter — who literally days earlier was supposedly borderline untouchable. Only 19 months ago, they matched a max contract offer for Porter — and weren’t all that mad! Now they’ve traded him for two guys on expiring deals. (By the way: In that same summer, Washington let Bojan Bogdanovic go to retain Porter. Bogdanovic then signed a two-year, $21 million deal with Indiana that looks like a joke. You think the Wizards would like to have that one back?)
Getting out of tax prison is fine in a vacuum. There was not a great Porter trade out there to make, and they can’t do much of anything with Wall set to take up 35-ish percent of the cap going forward. They can build a decent team (by East standards) if they re-sign Tomas Satoransky. Hooray.
It’s everything up to this point that hurts. Finding a way to navigate the next three or four years without tanking is going to be really hard.
LeBron and the Lakers
So what do you do now? Roll over and die like you did in Indiana on Tuesday, when the Lakers looked like the zombie pre-trade-deadline Cavaliers from last season? The Clippers could still make the playoffs, but I’m not sure they want to. The Kings are puppies, even if they are rising. The Lakers with LeBron and trade chips they view as worthy of netting Anthony Davis can’t beat out those two teams for the last playoff spot?
The Lakers are behind, with the toughest remaining schedule of those three. I don’t care. LeBron has never made excuses. He played a role, directly or indirectly, in destabilizing his team. Fix it.
Harrison Barnes and the new cap space threats
Barnes will have to find a happy medium between the 3-and-D spot-up role he played for the Steve Kerr Warriors and the iso-tastic midrange alpha dog he strived to be in Dallas. More of the former is better, but that player type shouldn’t take up 25 percent of a team’s salary cap — and almost never does on a contender. The Kings don’t need to worry about that — yet.
They managed to thread the needle of acquiring a player who helps them win today without compromising much future cap space, or sacrificing a first-round pick. (The Hornets chased Barnes too, but any Charlotte offer including its first-round pick would have come with money the Mavs didn’t want, sources say.) The real decision point will come if Barnes declines his $25 million option for next season in hopes of negotiating a long-term deal.
Barnes will have to play a ton of small forward given the logjam of bigs on this roster. (The Kings sniffed around some deals that would have sent out Willie Cauley-Stein, but it’s unclear how far they got.)
• The Mavs, meanwhile, enter the max contract derby by sloughing Barnes. That has gone poorly for them since Mark Cuban broke up a title team to chase Howard and Deron Williams. It’s hard to see the top-tier guys — Durant, Leonard, Irving — giving Dallas a real hearing. Much of the next tier might be too old for the Luka Doncic/Kristaps Porzingis timeline. Unfortunately for Dallas, the restricted free agency crop — the guys on the Doncic/Porzingis age curve — is pretty thin.
But those two guys are precocious. They contribute to winning now — provided Porzingis is healthy. Dallas wiggled its way to another bite at the free agency apple. I bet they are aggressive.
• Keep an eye on the Nets. They have caught the eye of agents representing high-profile players. They are getting ambitious — with good reason.
• The Clippers have done incredible work over the last two years.
If the Pelicans eventually trade Davis for a package heavy on rebuilding assets, keep an eye on Holiday. He wants to be in a place where he can compete in the postseason and is waiting to see the Davis return, sources say.
I’m not sure any team needs a role player to be good as badly as Detroit needs Kennard to be good after jettisoning both Stanley Johnson and Reggie Bullock. I’m optimistic — at least on offense. Kennard can shoot, and has good feel handling and passing. He makes mistakes on defense, but Dwane Casey can’t yank him at the first opportunity anymore. There is no one else to play.
Denver stood pat, understandably happy to ride the good vibes of this season. But the Nuggets are down to 14th in points allowed per possession, and they’re 25th since Dec. 1. They are hemorrhaging corner 3s.
They need some core players to get healthy, and to right their defense if they want to do postseason damage.
Orlando and Minnesota, wandering
• The first big trade of the Jeff Weltman/John Hammond era was a low-risk flier on the 2017 No. 1 pick who plays a position of severe need for Orlando — a no-brainer. Markelle Fultz is long and he can’t shoot, which means he was destined to play for the Magic.
They held onto Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, and Terrence Ross, and insisted in talks over the last few weeks that they would not part with Ross for anything less than a first-round pick, sources say.
(It’s possible a straight Fultz-for-Ross swap — one of my pet fake trades all season — was never on the table. Perhaps the teams could not agree on draft compensation within the Fultz-Ross construct.)
Those are all fine decisions. Gordon is a good, young player on a declining contract. Vucevic is their best player, and only 28.
They just seem aimless. There are nights when you see what the Gordon-Jonathan Isaac-Vucevic super-big trio can be, but in the aggregate, Gordon still looks miscast as a pseudo-wing. What is this team’s identity, beyond being tall? How do they want to play?
• Minnesota did nothing, and had very little to do. There was no real market for Taj Gibson on an expiring deal, or for Jeff Teague, carrying a $19 million option for next season. A couple of teams kicked around trying to swipe Andrew Wiggins on the cheap, but the Wolves expressed little interest in going there, sources say.
Wiggins is back to being unproductive and inefficient after a brief post-Butler bounce. Dario Saric is finding his way. Josh Okogie is going to stick as a rotation guy. But what do these guys really have that moves the needle long-term beyond Karl-Anthony Towns and maybe Robert Covington as a nice supporting guy?