Road to NBA title gets tougher
PHOENIX now has NBA champion and perennial All-Star Kevin Durant. Dallas now has NBA champion and perennial All-Star Kyrie Irving. In Los Angeles, the Lakers and Clippers have more depth. Memphis and New Orleans just acquired more shooters. Denver got a backup for its two-time MVP. Golden State brought back a key from last season’s championship run.
All eight of those teams, right now, have to be feeling good about what they pulled off at trade-deadline time.
Now, remember this: At least four of those teams — and maybe more of the clubs in that group — won’t even make the second round of the playoffs.
Trade deadline day has come and gone, and above all else, it reaffirmed that getting out of the Western Conference and making the NBA Finals is going to be incredibly daunting this season. There was no shortage of contenders out West before Thursday, and there might be even more teams thinking that they’re contenders now after finding ways to add talent.
“Chaos,” was the word Cleveland president of basketball operations Coby Altman used to describe the barrage of moves being made around the league Thursday.
He wasn’t wrong.
There were the blockbusters — Irving earlier in the week going to the Mavericks, then the middle-of-the-night deal late Wednesday or early Thursday, depending on where you were sleeping, that sent Durant to the Suns.
Irving and Durant were Brooklyn teammates when this week started. Now, they’re rivals in the West, Irving joining Luka Doncic, Durant being added to Devin Booker and the still-chasing-a-ring Chris Paul, who figures to have another chance at grabbing that elusive piece of jewelry.
Nets general manager Sean Marks said the team traded Durant “after thorough evaluation of the best path forward.” With that, what Brooklyn envisioned as a Big Three era — Durant and Irving with James Harden — is now completely over. Harden was traded last season, Durant and Irving this week, and the Nets begin anew once again, now 20 years removed from the franchise’s last trip to the East finals.
The bad news: Brooklyn’s title window, for now, is closed. The good news: The Nets loaded up on draft picks, which were in short supply after other deals in recent years.
Not all the moves made in the last few days, most of them Thursday, had to be blockbusters to be winners.
The Lakers changed much of the supporting cast that’ll play with LeBron James and Anthony Davis for the stretch run. Denver was on the other side of one of the Lakers’ moves, getting Thomas Bryant to play backup to two-time reigning MVP Nikola Jokic. Memphis added Luke Kennard, the Clippers added Eric Gordon. Golden State brought back Gary Payton 2nd and trimmed a ton of money off its still-enormous tax bill. Milwaukee landed Jae Crowder, who was a big part of Miami’s run to the NBA Finals in 2020, and Phoenix’s trip there in 2021. Philadelphia got out of the luxury tax entirely, a move that doesn’t mean anything for the 76ers in the standings right now but could certainly matter down the road.
There were some teams that held firm and didn’t overpay for what the market presented them with. Miami looked into moves; nothing really materialized except for one earlier in the week in which the Heat moved Dewayne Dedmon to San Antonio to clear a roster spot and save a little money. Toronto was expected to be a seller; the Raptors wound up holding on to Fred VanVleet, O.G. Anunoby and others, then brought back Jakob Poeltl from the Spurs after trading him to San Antonio as part of the Kawhi Leonard deal.
And then there were the teams thinking solely about down the road. San Antonio — now fully into a rebuild — added almost 10 draft picks in the last few days, almost all of them second-round selections.
More than 30 second-round picks from the next few years were traded this year at the deadline, as many as five of them being attached to some trades. It spoke to where the NBA is right now: some teams are willing to shoot their shot and not worry about future draft capital, other teams are willing to stockpile assets and see what the drafts can bring.
There’s never been a season, at least not in recent memory, where this many teams seem like actual contenders to win a championship. Trade deadline day didn’t change that. Some teams got better, sure, but now it’s absolutely certain that winning a title this year won’t be a cakewalk for anybody.