By Rahul Lal
At this point of the season, with about two-thirds of the games played, every team is tired and struggling with injuries. Cue the NBA All-Star break, which amounts to a week-long hiatus for most of the league.
The NBA Trade Deadline is looming, and teams are starting to show interest and make moves. Some teams hope to solidify their lineup and put/keep themselves in playoff contention. Others want to prepare for the draft by acquiring picks or improving their draft position. But come February 23 at 3:00 p.m. ET, all the maneuvering ends. And the games resume that night.
What can we expect in the Eastern Conference for the second half of the season?
The first team we obviously need to talk about is the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs have been plagued by bad injury luck all season and have been forced to play a 32-year-old LeBron James over 37 minutes a game. That is wildly concerning, given how the Warriors fizzled out last season. Their lack of depth, especially in the front court, hurts them a lot with the recent injury to star Kevin Love. To preserve the team’s health going into the playoffs, the Cavs may begin resting players like James and Kyrie Irving down the stretch.
While no team in the East measures up to the Cavs, the Toronto Raptors just traded for Serge Ibaka, who will be a free agent this offseason, in a deal that screams “win-now!” The move will definitely keep them back in contention. Their most underrated asset is still their bench, consisting of steady contributors like Cory Joseph, Patrick Patterson, Lucas Nogueira, Pascal Siakam and Norman Powell, who is ready to step into Terrence Ross’s minutes. The Boston Celtics are also a legitimate contender, as they boast one of the league’s best scorers in Isaiah Thomas and one of the best defensive units, not to mention multiple second-tier players and rising stars.
The Washington Wizards have quietly been the hottest team in the East lately, winning 17 of their last 20 games to put themselves in position to lock up home-court advantage in the playoffs. While I’m cautiously optimistic about their winning ways, bench production is still a major issue in DC. And teams like the Atlanta Hawks are still knocking at the door. The Hawks have been about as steady as they could be given the loss of Jeff Teague, Al Horford and Kyle Korver within one calendar year. Getting one of Dwight Howard’s best seasons, coupled with all-star-level play from Paul Millsap, who pledged his allegiance to Atlanta, has definitely helped. Finishing the season strong will go a long way in retaining the soon-to-be free agent this offseason and help them build and remain relevant in the East.
The teams still fighting to remain in the playoffs begin with the disappointment that has been the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers added big names like Teague, Thaddeus Young and traditional big man Al Jefferson. Jefferson and Monta Ellis have shown immense decline, but due to great ahead-of-the-curve production from future-star Myles Turner and dunk-contest participant Glenn Robinson III, the Pacers should make a dent in the playoffs. The Chicago Bulls have stayed in the headlines due to drama centered around point guard Rajon Rondo. The team would be better off trading for some young talent and truly beginning their rebuild, as they currently don’t have the financial flexibility or roster space to move forward. The Bulls will wind up fighting for a late seed, as they typically do, and then will face some big decisions around draft day regarding their assets.
The Detroit Pistons find themselves in a bleaker-than-expected position moving forward due to the not-so-impressive play of point guard Reggie Jackson. He’s been rusty since his return from injury. While there are plenty of young and impressive players on the roster, the Pistons won’t provide a threat to any of the aforementioned teams this season. The Milwaukee Bucks sounded one of the league’s strongest notes to start the season, with eye-popping numbers from the “Greek Freak” Giannis Antetokounmpo. But the Bucks began to slow down and were hit with the unfortunate injury to Jabari Parker, who was having an incredible season to that point. Khris Middleton’s return to the lineup after the break will surely provide a spark to help them finish strong. But they need to draft a point guard to hopefully relieve some on-ball pressure from Antetokounmpo next season and allow the team to build on this season’s successes.
Like the Bucks, the Charlotte Hornets are only a couple games out of the East, even with underrated numbers from Kemba Walker, who is taking his game to an entirely new level this year. Not even two games out of the eight seed, the Hornets could easily get on a run and push a struggling team like the Pistons out of the playoffs. But it also begs the question: what good would that do? Maybe the most impressive unit in the conference this season, the Miami Heat went on a 13-game win streak to put themselves around the middle of the pack. While the decision to pay Hassan Whiteside is justified and other players have stepped up this season, Miami is better off playing for a higher draft pick and building on a young team that lost Justise Winslow for the rest of the season. The Heat should play for playoffs next season.
When’s The Draft, Again?
Hey, look! It’s the New York Knicks dominating the headlines again! Whether it be the Charles Oakley-James Dolan spat or more Melo rumors, the Knicks are in the news for the wrong reasons. This team has way too much to be sitting double-digit games below .500 on the season. Unfortunately for Knicks fans, this won’t change. It may be time to start scouting, because Kristaps Porzingis sure could use some help.
Another team that will take a wait-and-see approach is the Philadelphia 76ers, who have one of the brightest futures in the league, even with a knee injury to star and social media superstar Joel Embiid. Dario Saric has been a bright spot, and the team will look to find a new home for either Nerlens Noel or Jahlil Okafor before the trade deadline to create permanent minutes for Saric. Sixers fans can also look forward to the debut of top overall pick Ben Simmons, who is unsure if he’ll play this season. Given how Embiid turned out, fans shouldn’t pressure Simmons to return too soon. The team could wind up benefitting greatly from their own lottery draft pick and possibly acquire the Lakers’ top-three protected pick. Grabbing a solid guard like Malik Monk or Dennis Smith could put the Sixers in the playoffs as early as next season.
The Orlando Magic look like a team with no idea what direction to take. A couple seasons removed from what seemed like a bright future, the Magic now have the weirdest mix of young guys and veterans. Trading away Ibaka for the young Terrence Ross is a positive move. But having veterans like Nikola Vucevic, Jeff Green and Jodie Meeks sends the wrong message to the players who could be their future, like Mario Hezonja, Bismack Biyombo and even Aaron Gordon despite his consistent minutes. Evan Fournier is often lost in mix, but he is their most consistent player and looks to be their sharpshooting wing of the future.
The Brooklyn Nets are in the worst spot in the entire league, as they don’t have any shiny, attractive young players to develop or offer up. The play of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Caris LeVert and Sean Kilpatrick has been inconsistent. Brook Lopez is doing about the best that he can be expected to given the lack of talent around him. But at only five boards per game, it’s time for the Nets to explore trading him for a top draft pick since the majority of their picks over the next few years belong to the Celtics. Landing a player like Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball or Jayson Tatum could go a long way in reenergizing the franchise and creating a sense of opportunity in Brooklyn.
Rahul Lal is an LA native stuck in a lifelong, love-hate relationship with the Lakers, Dodgers and Raiders. You can follow him on Twitter here.