WASHINGTON — The Western Conference has been the dominant conference in the NBA for years, but the tide could slowly be turning.
Several Eastern Conference powers, including the Wizards and Toronto Raptors, made moves to improve immediately, while other up-and-comers, such as the Philadelphia 76ers, made moves to clarify their future paths.
Here is a wrap-up of the Eastern Conference moves that went down in the weeks, days and hours before the 2017 deadline, which had the potential to be the most explosive deadline in years, but instead it was fairly uneventful.
Cleveland Cavaliers: The Cavaliers added Kyle Korver more than a month ago, but they have been quite ever since. There was some talk that they were interested in Patrick Beverley of the Houston Rockets, with Iman Shumpert being the primary piece Cleveland would send in exchange, but that never matriculated.
Boston Celtics: The Celtics were the hottest team in trade rumors in the hours leading up to the deadline, being tied most commonly to a pair of superstars: Jimmy Butler of the Chicago Bulls and Paul George of the Indiana Pacers. They ended up acquiring neither, and they’ll instead hold onto their stockpile of assets for at least the remainder of this season.
In addition to a wealth of talented young players — six players on their roster are less than 23 years old, including Marcus Smart (22), Terry Rozier (22), James Young (21) and Jaylen Brown (20) — the Celtics also have the Brooklyn Nets’ first-round pick this year, their own and Brooklyn’s first-round pick next year, and as many as three first-round picks in 2019, as well as more than a half-dozen second round picks over those three drafts.
Presumably, GM Danny Ainge will eventually flip some combination of those players and picks for a top-end talent such as Butler or George, and it seems he’s trying to wait it out as long as possible. That might be prudent, but he runs the risk of waiting too long and overplaying his hand. Either way, the Celtics are poised to be among the top third of the league for the foreseeable future.
Washington Wizards: The Wizards traded for Bojan Bogdanovic and Chris McCullough on Wednesday afternoon, giving up their 2017 first-round pick, Andrew Nicholson and Marcus Thornton in the process. They were rumored to be interested in another move before Thursday’s deadline, but they couldn’t find anything they liked and ended up staying
Toronto Raptors: The Raptors made one of the earliest moves by sending Terrence Ross and a first-round pick to the Orlando Magic in exchange for veteran big man Serge Ibaka. Ibaka is only under contract through the end of the season, but reports indicate the Raptors plan to re-sign him.
The Raptors made a second move in the final minutes ahead of the deadline, sending Jared Sullinger and a pair of second-round picks to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for veteran swingman P.J. Tucker. Tucker averages just 7.0 points per game this season and has never averaged 10 points per game in a season, but he can play three positions and routinely averages more than six rebounds per game while shooting .347 from beyond the arc for his career. He figures to play a valuable role with the Raptors, who are currently in fourth place in the east but have a much more impressive roster than they did a month ago.
Atlanta Hawks: The Atlanta Hawks shipped Kyle Korver to the Cleveland Cavaliers in early January, and it seemed they would be big sellers ahead of the deadline. However, they never followed through on the house-cleaning, and instead made two somewhat minor moves. First, they picked up Ersan Ilyasova from the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for Tiago Splitter and two second-round picks, then they sold Mike Scott to the Phoenix Suns, who promptly waived him. The roster is better than it was before the deadline, as Ilyasova is a marked improvement over Scott and Splitter, but they remain somewhat in limbo, stuck as an above-average team with no clear path to contention.
They did reportedly try to swing a huge deal for Indiana Pacers star Paul George and Chicago Bulls star Jimmy Butler, but both came up empty. More on those failed attempts below.
Indiana Pacers: The Pacers are in sixth place with a very OK roster. Aside from Paul George, they don’t have any top-end talent, and they remain unsure of whether or not their superstar will remain with the team when his contract runs out after next season. Reports are that George, who is from the Los Angeles area, plans to sign with the Lakers when he enters free agency, and Indiana certainly doesn’t want to lose him for nothing.
The team, run by Larry Bird, reportedly explored trades both for him and for high-caliber players to support him, but it ultimately remained stagnant when the 3 p.m. deadline came about. In addition to Atlanta and Boston offering up hearty trade packages for the 26-year-old George, the Denver Nuggets reportedly put together a “monster offer” for him.
George didn’t seem thrilled by the activity when he reflected on it on Thursday.
Whatever happens with the Pacers, it’s highly likely the roster will look very different by the time the 2018-19 season starts. If George is still on the team, it will probably be at least in part because Indiana has secured another star to play alongside him. If he’s not wearing a Pacers uniform, the organization will most likely be in full-on rebuilding mode.
Chicago Bulls: The Bulls and the Pacers are in very similar positions, both in terms of the current NBA standings and organizational direction. Separated by just a single game in the Eastern Conference standings, both teams are led by star wings who are surrounded by aging role players that collectively only move the needle slightly. And both star players were shopped ahead of the trade deadline, yet neither was moved.
Both teams desperately need a clear plan, as neither is currently designed to compete for a title. Chicago did end up sending forwards Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott and a second-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Cameron Payne, Joffrey Lauvergne and Anthony Morrow. The move doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, as the Bulls were already lacking shooting and they traded away their best young shooter in McDermott; they did add a 3-point specialist in Morrow, but he’s not going to get any better and he does little to help the team going forward. Payne and Lauvergne have some potential, but neither has much space to grow on Chicago’s crowded roster.
Chicago, Indiana and Atlanta are all treading water, and they’re all due for change. Thursday helped reinforce that notion, and there is a real possibility any (or all) of them completely dismantles their core and starts over this summer.
Detroit Pistons: The Pistons reportedly explored deals for star center Andre Drummond and point guard Reggie Jackson, but they eventually stayed quiet. Though they’re only mediocre right now, they have a slew of valuable pieces in Drummond, Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Tobias Harris, Marcus Morris, Stanley Johnson, Jon Leuer and Ish Smith. They can either build their current core and hope for a breakthrough from one of those players, or they can package a few of them with a pick or two in search of a superstar to pair with Drummond. They could also ship off Drummond for young assets and/or picks and start over, but they’re in a pretty good place for the future.
Milwaukee Bucks: The Bucks have one of the most intriguing young cores in the NBA, and they simply need to be patient while Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker develop, but they would also be well-served adding another star. They were mostly silent around the deadline, which was for the best, but they could start making noise around this time next season. Their only move was sending Roy Hibbert, who they acquired earlier this month, to the Denver Nuggets in exchange for a future second-round pick.
Miami Heat: The Heat were quiet at the deadline, as well, even though some thought they might emerge as sellers. Hassan Whiteside and Justise Winslow are the team’s future, but almost everybody else on the roster is expendable and could be used to turn into future assets.
Charlotte Hornets: The Hornets were another quiet team at the deadline, as expected. They have several pieces that could have been moved, but nothing they have to offer proved to be especially intriguing. Charlotte seems content to let its core of Kemba Walker, Nic Batum, Frank Kaminsky, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller grow and develop, but it will have to add another piece eventually if it wants to move into the contender conversation.
New York Knicks: The Knicks are all over the place, but they ultimately remained quiet at the deadline. Nobody really knows what direction they’ll go in, but they went all-in to win now this past offseason, and that plan quickly went awry.
Philadelphia 76ers: The 76ers have been working hard to clear up the big man logjam they have, and they finally made progress by sending Nerlens Noel to the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for a conditional first-round pick, Justin Anderson and Andrew Bogut. If the pick falls anywhere in the top 18, the Sixers get the Mavericks’ second-round pick in 2017 and 2018. They quickly waived Bogut, who now seems likely to be signed by a championship contender.
This was a somewhat confusing move for Philadelphia. It makes perfect sense that it wanted to finally move on from Noel in order to make more room for Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor, but Okafor hasn’t shown much since entering the NBA and Embiid has struggled to stay on the court. What’s more, the Sixers’ return in the deal is minimal, as the first-round pick is almost definitely going to turn into a pair of second-rounders. There is plenty to like about Anderson, but he and two low-level picks isn’t much of a haul for a player of Noel’s immense potential.
Philadelphia also sent Ersan Ilyasova to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Tiago Splitter and two second-round picks, then they announced Friday morning that 2016 No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons would sit out the rest of the season, all but guaranteeing themselves another top-5 pick in the 2017 draft. If the season ended before Friday’s games, the Sixers would have the fifth-worst record, but they just parted with Noel and Ilyasova, shut down their highly-touted prospect for the year, and Embiid remains injured.
The Sixers won’t be competitive the remainder of this season, and with a quality pick in the loaded 2017 draft, they’ll once again be stocked with exciting young talent entering the 2017-18 season.
Orlando Magic: The Magic sent Serge Ibaka to the Raptors, as mentioned above, but they were otherwise stagnant. They have few assets moving forward, and they have a long way to go before they’re relevant.
Brooklyn Nets: The Nets took on the albatross that is Andrew Nicholson’s contract, as well as the Wizards’ first-round pick in 2017, in exchange for Bojan Bogdanovic and Chris McCullough. They also received Marcus Thornton in the deal, but they quickly waived him. There is more coverage of that deal above.
Brooklyn also made a smart move by sending a future second-round pick to the Houston Rockets in exchange for K.J. McDaniels, an interesting do-it-all prospect who should get a chance to play on a bad Nets team. The Nets desperately need future assets, and they need to turn their middling players into something that will serve them down the road. They did both of those things with each of their deals leading up to the deadline, and for the first time in a long time, the Nets seem to have a legitimate plan.
In summation, there are still a handful of teams — Bulls, Pacers, Hawks, Magic — who are running in place and need to pick a direction to turn, either make a big move to try to contend or blow it all up and start over. But the majority of the teams in the Eastern Conference have brighter futures than they did when the season started, including the Wizards, Raptors, Pistons, Bucks and Nets. The Sixers and Hornets are arguably in better positions than they were six months ago, and only really the Knicks are a complete disaster (though the Nets are still a long, long way from relevance).
The Western Conference is the better conference, and it probably will be next season, as well. But eight of the 15 teams in the west have a losing record, and the gap between the two is getting slimmer.