With yesterday’s NBA trading deadline behind us, we now embark on the League’s final trimester to see who’s hot—and who’s not—during this final stretch of the 2017-18 regular season.
Your idea of point guard is as good as mine (D.J. Augustin or Shelvin Mack?), but by trading Elfrid Payton to the Suns for a second-round pick, the Magic have made themselves the tank favorites at landing a top spot in the 2018 NBA Draft, especially after going 5-20 in Trimester 2 while dealing with the injury losses to center Nikola Vucevic, power forward Jonathan Isaac and wing Terrence Ross.
29. Sacramento Kings
Who knows why they cut 20-year-old center prospect George Papagiannis? But they did, which puts a damper on an otherwise happy day when they parlayed George Hill’s bad two-year contract into Iman Shumpert’s more decent player-option contract. Will it help Sac improve on an 8-18 Trimester 2? No, but they now have the flexibility in the future to pursue free agents again.
28. Phoenix Suns
Phoenix only gave up a second-round pick to get Elfrid Payton, an upcoming free agent who may or may not be the Suns point guard of the future. His two-month tryout begins now. As for the rest of the Suns, following a 9-18 Trimester 2, they are likely to see more of the same with former staples Brandon Knight, Alan Williams and Isaiah Canaan sitting out the rest of 2017-18 with season-ending injuries.
Injured bigs Dewayne Dedmon and Ersan Ilyasova were shopped around to no avail, so expect them to suit up whenever—if ever—they become healthy again this season. The other Hawks, mind you, will battle on as best they can, going 11-16 during Trimester 2, which best indicates that this team is not tanking, even if it looks like they are.
26. Chicago Bulls
The Bulls got some cash to take on Noah Vonleh’s contract, so no biggie there. As for unloading their best player, Nikola Mirotic, for the Pelicans’ 2018 top-5-protected first-round pick, along with third-string defensive specialists Tony Allen and Omer Asik? I did not think that was so bright. Then again, Mirotic’s return to the lineup gave Chicago a better Trimester 2 than it expected (11-15). So if your goal is to tank, it makes sense to get rid of Mirotic and seek little in return.
On the same week that the Mavs got the news that Seth Curry was lost for the season—as in zero games—due to left-tibia surgery, Dallas GM Donn Nelson was able to land himself another sharpshooter in the form of ex-Knick Doug McDermott, who is making 46 percent of his three-pointers this season and 44 percent on his career. God only knows if that helps Dallas improve on a 10-17 Trimester 2, but hey, it couldn’t hurt, right?
As Mike Conley recovered from season-ending heel surgery, and as Chandler Parsons refreshed his Woj Twitter feed, and as Tyreke Evans begged to be traded whilst his Grizzlies employers turned away those who sought Marc Gasol in deals, Memphis waited. Memphis waited during trade deadline Thursday, and did nothing. Yes, they were treacherous in Trimester 2 (10-17) and going nowhere, but rather than obviously tank a season away, Memphis chose rather to do nothing and let the 2017-18 season take nature’s course. Keep in mind that they may have landed themselves one hidden gem in Clippers castoff—and now Pistons castoff—Brice Johnson, who is a good prospect in my book. Now if he turns into a player someday, then this day was not for naught.
23. New York Knicks
In one fell swoop this week, the Knicks lost their All-Star power forward Kristaps Porzingis for the season to an ACL tear, lost backup center Willy Hernangomez to a trade request and eventual trade to the Hornets and also lost all hope at having a chance to make the playoffs. It was bad enough New York finished 9-18 in Trimester 2. Trimester 3 looks even less promising as tanks currently are surrounding Madison Square Garden. At least the Knicks front office made one good future move in landing 21-year-old point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, who may be a year or two away from major minutes, but does show potential.
22. Brooklyn Nets
It was nice to see Jeremy Lin opt into the final 2018-19 season of his contract this week, especially since Lin got no more than 25 minutes run in his 2017-18 NBA season thus far. Otherwise, as it is, Brooklyn finds itself struggling to stay out of the cellar, best indicated by the Nets’ 8-19 record in Trimester 2. Picking up role-player forward Dante Cunningham can only help team depth.
21. Los Angeles Lakers
Don’t get too infatuated with Isaiah Thomas because he won’t be here long. Channing Frye? Wonderful fellow. Enjoy his presence for the next two months because he’s not long for here either. And be happy that when the Lakers do try to lure LeBron James and Paul George to L.A. that they now have the necessary cap room to get two max deals done. But also manage your expectations because neither is likely to join a sub-.500 squad just yet. But, at the very least, hope is alive in L.A. And if the free agents don’t come in 2018, they probably will in 2019 when there are even more legit stars to follow.
20. Charlotte Hornets
If you don’t understand Spanish, going from third-string center Johnny O’Bryant to second-string center and valued role player Willy Hernangomez translates to a much better bench. To think it only cost GM Rich Cho two future second-round picks to make the trade is incomprehensible. Look for the Hornets to improve on their 13-13 Trimester 2 showing thus far.
The Jazz may have only import Jae Crowder to show for their trade deadline exports (Joe Johnson and Rodney Hood), but Jazz bookkeepers believe the franchise is better off with a more streamlined operation, which Utah now becomes after going 13-14 in Trimester 2 and 25-28 overall after earlier losing big guards Thabo Sefolosha and Dante Exum to season-ending injuries.
The DeMarcus Cousins acquisition in February 2017 did not necessarily make the Pelicans a strong playoff team this season, but at least it may help NOLA become a 2018 playoff team. And should new acquisition and former Bulls stretch forward Nikola Mirotic contributed an even greater sum that adds to the parts, then New Orleans may be able to utilize the Mirotic-Davis dynamic to greater effect than whet Cousins-could do. As for Bucks-to-Nets-to-Pelicans acquisition Rashad Vaughn? He is a 21-year-old shooting guard prospect who is developing nicely for his age. Still a year or two away from major minutes.
One would think after going 16-9 in Trimester 2 that the Clippers would be embracing a playoff run, but no, no, no. We believe consultant Jerry West got his way in shipping Blake Griffin out of town—a move owner Steve Ballmer, GM Lawrence Frank and Head Coach Doc Rivers signed off on this summer when they inked BG to a five-year, middle-max contract. West, who was hired after that deal, is always an advocator of going all-in when a superstar becomes available, which makes us think he convinced the aforementioned to create the cap room to make the Clippers Staples Center a more compatible L.A. home for free agent LeBron James than the Lakers Staples Center. It is just a theory. But that’s the way we’ve seen West move first-hand, best evidenced when he cleaned the Lakers cupboard in Summer 1996 before landing Shaquille O’Neal, not to mention Kobe Bryant too.
The Wizards are hoping they can repeat their 17-10 Trimester 2 mark, mainly because All-Star John Wall won’t return from left knee surgery until mid-March. As long as Washington (31-23 overall) can remain on a 45-50 win pace, they will still be in position to make some noise come playoff time.
15. Philadelphia 76ers
No. 1 draft pick Markelle Fultz has only played 76 minutes during Trimesters 1 and 2, but no matter. Philly has been able to keep a .500 pace thanks to All-Star Joel Embiid, Rookie of the Year candidate Ben Simmons and do-everything wing Robert Covington. If the Sixers can finish Trimester 3 on similar 50/50 note, The Process will have finally become validated in the eyes of many at The Association.
Indiana went 14-13 in Trimester 2, a drop-off which is partly explainable due to Darren Collison’s left knee surgery, which should sideline the point guard until early March. That said, all other signs point to the Pacers pacing themselves nicely into a playoff push for this Trimester 3 stretch run. Indy is for real.
After going 12-13 in Trimester 2, Detroit certainly needed a lift if the Pistons wanted to make a run at a playoff spot in the East. And the Blake Griffin acquisition gave the franchise that very thing, with Detroit Basketball now reclaiming its Bad Boy identity by showcasing the best set of bigs in the game in Griffin and All-Star center Andre Drummond. The strength and athleticism these two possess is literally quite off the charts. Already in four games—and four wins—together, the two have combined for 157 points, 110 rebounds and a plus-86 plus-minus. As a bonus to that goodness, the Pistons also add reserves Jameer Nelson and James Ennis to the roster in trades made off the original Griffin deal.
It would be nice if Dion Waiters (season-ending left ankle surgery) was a part of the Heat’s latest second-half surging team, but you know what’s even nicer. Getting Dwyane Wade back in his natural habitat, thanks to a gift from Cleveland. Now D-Wade can assume his place at the Miami throne and lead his fellow leaders and Miami during this third trimester stretch of the season. If Wade can keep the Heat on tis Trimester 2 pace (16-11), they will be primed and ready for yet another postseason run.
By trading for center Tyler Zeller earlier in the week, the Bucks got themselves a good role player who can only make interim head coach Joe Prunty’s job easier. Remember, after a 15-11 Trimester 2, Prunty is dealing with the fact that Matthew Dellavedova (sprained right ankle) and Malcolm Brogdon (torn left quad tendon) won’t return until March, so good news is so good to hear here for a change, especially when it comes on the heels of Jabari Parker’s return to the Bucks lineup.
10. Portland Trail Blazers
It may not be sexy, but even billionaires like Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen like to save millions in luxury-tax penalties when they can. So credit GM Neil Olshey for trading Noah Vonleh and cash to Chicago for essentially nothing but the draft rights to a player they won’t use (32-year-old power forward Milovan Rakovic) and a $3.5 million traded player exception. By doing this, Olshey brings his team under budget, just like he did last year with the Jusuf Nurkic-Mason Plaumlee deal.
9. Denver Nuggets
Anytime you can parlay Emmanuel Mudiay into a veteran like Devin Harris, you make that trade. Anytime you can go 14-13 in Trimester 2 when Paul Millsap is sidelined with a left wrist torn ligament, you’ll take it. So, couple Millsap’s expected mid-March return with Mason Plumlee’s (right calf sprain) late-March return, and Denver should be in position to lock up a 5-thru-8 playoff slot for themselves
8. Cleveland Cavaliers
After going through a treacherous Trimester 2 (12-14) and losing All-Star Kevin Love to injury, the Cavs decided their strategy of loading their backcourt with rehabbing, recovering former All-Stars was not working, which is why Isaiah Thomas is now a Laker, Dwyane Wade a Heat and Derrick Rose a who-knows-what-team-will-sign-him-now. Now, thanks to a productive trading deadline, the Cavs are going young with good role-player acquisitions like power forward Larry Nance, small forward Rodney Hood, combo guards Jordan Clarkson and George Hill.
7. Minnesota Timberwolves
While the rest of the NBA busied itself with trade deadline deeds, Coach/GM Tom Thiibodeau sat back and had to reflect on how successful his T-Wolves have played out Trimesters 1 and 2 thus far (34-22). If they keep the pace—and why shouldn’t they?—Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns & Company have enough to get Minnesota to the 50 wins for the first time since 2004.
While losing defensive specialist Andre Roberson for the season can dampen anyone’s sense of enthusiasm for Trimester 3, all is not lost in OKC, with the now offensive-minded Oklahoma City slickers looking to improve on a steadily inclining Trimester 2 rise (17-10). A No. 3 West seed is not out of the question here.
5. San Antonio Spurs
Not too many top 5 teams can lose their star player for most of the season … and also that star player’s backup for half the season … and then expect to remain a top 5 team. Well, the Spurs can do just that and have during this otherwise impressive season, maintaining a 15-12 record in Trimester 2 when perennial All-Star Kawhi Leonard dealt with right quadriceps tendinopathy, and sixth man Rudy Gay dealt with a heel injury. Now, if the Spurs can get the services of Leonard, who has played only nine games, and Gay, who played 34, they could finish Trimester 3 with quite the flourish.
Part of the reason why Toronto had the second-best record in Trimester 2 (18-8) is because their starters have had a relatively injury-free season thus far, with the Raptors starting quintet only missing a combined dozen games in 2017-18. Couple that healthy with one of the NBA’s deepest benches, and you have Toronto’s recipe for regular season success in the Eastern Conference.
3. Boston Celtics
What Stan Van Gundy, Jason Kidd and Jay Triano could not handle, let Coach Brad Stevens fix, as he takes on his latest fixer-upper in Greg Monroe, a good role-playing power forward-center, who just may become a great role player playing alongside Celtics bigs Al Horford, Aron Baynes, Daniel Theis and Guerschon Yabusele. If Boston can improve on its 17-10 Trimester 2 showing, they just may win this Eastern Conference title.
2. Houston Rockets
Similar to the Warriors, the Rockets have had their fair share of injury problems—Chris Paul missed 18 games; James Harden missed 7—but they were able to keep pace with the Warriors, going 17-9 during Trimester 2. And if Trevor Ariza, who has missed nine games this season, returns soon from his hamstring injury, then Houston just may be able to keep pace with the Warriors for this Trimester 3 stretch run.
1. Golden State Warriors
Please excuse the Warriors (20-7 in Trimester 2) when they lose an occasional game here or there. After all, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green have missed 15, 8 and 7 games this season, respectively, which is allowed when your team plays 307 games in three years of three straight Finals appearances, leading to two League titles. I mean, after winning three straight NBA championships, Michael Jordan retired—TWICE!—after his team played 300-plus over three.