The Golden State Warriors are clear favorites to win their fourth title in five years, but that didn’t deter most of the Eastern Conference powerhouses from making big splashes ahead of Thursday’s NBA trade deadline.
After acquiring Jimmy Butler in November, the Philadelphia 76ers went even more all-in this week, shipping Wilson Chandler, Landry Shamet, Mike Muscala, two future first-round picks and two second-rounders (via Detroit) to the Los Angeles Clippers for Tobias Harris, Mike Scott and Boban Marjanovic. They also cut bait on 2017 No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz, sending him to the Orlando Magic for Jonathon Simmons, Oklahoma City’s top-20 protected 2020 first-round pick and a 2019 second-rounder likely from Cleveland.
After the Sixers kicked off the proceedings in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors quickly responded. The former acquired Nikola Mirotic in a three-team trade in which they shipped out Jason Smith, Thon Maker and four future second-round picks, while the latter snagged Marc Gasol for Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, CJ Miles and a 2024 second-rounder.
“It was an arms race,” Sixers general manager Elton Brand told reporters Friday. “Teams were trying to get better. I think four of the best teams are in the Eastern Conference. They wanted to get better and I’m glad we took a shot to get better early. We’ll be prepared.”
Those trade deadline moves set the stage for a bloody Eastern Conference playoff bracket that could have wide-ranging implications for this summer and beyond.
With all due respect to the Victor Oladipo-less Indiana Pacers and upstart Brooklyn Nets, the Bucks, Raptors, Sixers and Boston Celtics figure to be heavily favored in their respective first-round playoff matchups. Come the Eastern Conference Semifinals, though, all bets are off.
Each of those squads have at least one big-name player set to become a free agent this summer, from Harris and Butler in Philly to Kyrie Irving in Boston, from Kawhi Leonard in Toronto to just about everyone not named Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee. A dispiriting playoff collapse could convince one or more of those stars that they’ll have better opportunities elsewhere.
It isn’t as though they won’t have other options. Nearly one-third of the league could easily carve out enough cap space to offer at least one max contract, and the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Clippers may be gearing up for a run at two maxes each. With the demand for top-tier free agents far greater than the supply, desperation will run amok this summer for whichever teams miss out on the likes of Irving, Leonard and Kevin Durant.
That ratchets up the stakes for the East’s top four teams, all of whom could go from potential dynasty to afterthought in the blink of an eye come July 1.
Irving has spent much of the 2018-19 season doing his best LeBron James impression by passive-aggressively grumbling about his younger teammates’ habits. After clearly stating his intent to re-sign in Boston back in October, he backed off that message last week, telling reporters, “Ask me July 1” in regard to his long-term plans.
Celtics team president Danny Ainge expressed confidence Friday in the franchise’s ability to retain Irving, saying on Boston radio station 98.5 The Sports Hub:
“The way I viewed the situation is that I think a lot of people, because of Kyrie’s announcement at the beginning of the year, thought that it was a marriage. And I think that it’s more like an engagement. And we’re going to get married on July 1st. I think that engagement is still on, as far as I know.”
Getting Irving to recommit may be critical for the Celtics’ pursuit of Anthony Davis. In October, Jay King of The Athletic reported Irving and Davis had “already spoken about what it would be like to play together in Boston,” but Davis’ feelings toward the organization appear to have cooled in recent months. The Celtics were not on the list of teams he recently said he’d re-sign with in 2020, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, and Davis’ father blasted the organization in a conversation with ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne.
Would a deep playoff run convince Irving and Davis that the Celtics give them their best chance of winning titles together? Would that in turn cause Ainge to dangle Jayson Tatum in trade talks even though the Celtics have promised “no specific offer or deal” to the Pelicans, according to Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated?
The Celtics may be responsible for July’s biggest domino effect, but the Sixers, Raptors and Bucks could be in for turbulent summers of their own.
After acquiring Butler and Harris and giving up so quickly on Fultz, the Sixers have chosen their lane. They’re all-in now, and there’s no going back. Losing either Butler or Harris in free agency could be catastrophic considering how much they shipped out to acquire both players, but keeping their Big Four long term would result in mammoth luxury-tax payments down the road.
On Friday, Brand said he had received “assurances from the managing partners that we can bring [Butler and Harris] back and sign them for what we need to sign them for.” He added that “a lot of things need to happen before that, but we are all on board to keep this core together long term.” While that sounds great in theory, ask new Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, who made a similar pledge last July, how it works in practice.
If the Sixers attempt to skimp on Butler or Harris, hoping the higher annual raises and extra year they can offer wins out over another team’s bid, they may be playing with fire. But if they get trounced in the second round and their locker room devolves into a toxic environment, their willingness to pay up may be a non-issue regardless. There’s nothing preventing Butler or Harris from walking in July and leaving the Sixers empty-handed.
The same goes for Leonard and the Raptors, for that matter. The Los Angeles Clippers are not-so-secretly lusting after the two-time Defensive Player of the Year, and they could clear out enough cap space to sign both Leonard and another max player by stretching the final year of Danilo Gallinari’s contract. If Toronto’s acquisition of Gasol goes belly-up, will that seal the deal for Leonard to walk this summer?
The Bucks may be under the least immediate pressure of any Eastern Conference contender, as Antetokounmpo is signed through 2020-21. However, the rest of their key rotation players — Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon, Brook Lopez and now Mirotic — will all be free agents come July. Perhaps a deep playoff run would convince all of them to return on slight discounts to keep the good times rolling, but what happens if the Bucks flame out early? Will their ownership flirt with the luxury tax to bring back this same group, knowing Antetokounmpo is next in line for superstar tampering once Anthony Davis’ situation is finally resolved?
It’s no exaggeration to say this year’s Eastern Conference Playoffs may help shape the NBA for the next half-decade. Three of the four won’t even have the chance to face the Warriors in the Finals, which could have devastating consequences for them in July.