After a pretty quiet December, many teams in this league experienced significant changes in fortune during the first month and a half of 2017. If 2016 was a fairly dull year for the league as a whole, it’s looking like 2017 is shaping up to be quite an interesting one. Let’s take a closer look.
THE CLIPPERS FINALLY BEGIN THE REBUILD
The LA Clippers have had a rough go of it from the inception of the league. Armed with two superstars in Chris Paul (a top three point guard of all time in this humble reporter’s opinion) and Blake Griffin (a mega-talented but oft-injured unicorn who finished third in MVP voting a few years ago), the Clips were somehow never able to build a good team around them. For a while, their third best player was Kyle Korver. Much like the real Clippers, LA never put it all together to achieve any real success.
At nearly 30 games under .500 in a top-heavy Pacific Division with no playoff appearances in three years and with precisely two good players and no promising ones (OK fine, maybe Josh Richardson), blowing this team up and starting from scratch was probably the correct move. And so Blake and CP3 were gone. Let’s dive deep on these trades.
LAC receives: Dario Saric, Deyonta Davis and the Pacers’ 1st round pick
IND receives: Blake Griffin
I hated this trade at first and can guarantee you that the Clippers had at least one better offer than this. But the more I think about it, the less atrocious it seems. Look, a 50-point player is extremely rare and make no mistake: the return here should have been greater. But you can understand why the Clippers liked what they got.
Saric is putting together a really nice rookie season and will only get better once Ilyasova clears out. He looks like an important piece for the future of the Sixers and will have lots of opportunity to do some good things in a lineup featuring Embiid, Simmons and whatever point guard Philly drafts this summer. He’s a guy I can see averaging something like 15-17 points, 6-8 rebounds and 4-5 assists in his prime.
Deyonta Davis was probably a lottery-level talent in this rookie class (granted, it’s looking like the weakest draft in at least a decade) but fell to the second round because he’s so unpolished. He’s definitely a prospect, but he’s noted more for his defense than anything, which doesn’t often translate into fantasy relevance. And the Grizzlies aren’t exactly known for throwing young players into the mix right away – or even within the first like five years. He’s buried behind ZBo, JaMychal Green and Jarell Martin, though Green is a free agent this summer and Memphis won’t be able to afford a new contract for him, so there’s that.
The Indy pick will be like #25 at best because the Pacers got so much better because of this trade. Picks are always nice, but the talent in this draft falls off monumentally after like the 15th pick, and Indy ain’t finishing in the lottery.
So basically this trade amounts to Griffin for Saric and two mumbled prayers. I’m shocked that this trade happened without the Philly pick. Or without any of the Pacers’ million other young prospects with actual promise. No Exum? No Lyles? No Garry Harris? Just Deyonta Davis?
I’ll refrain for now from talking any more about how this affects the Clippers and instead talk about how this affects Indiana and the East, because that’s more interesting.
The Pacers instantly just became the second-best team in the East. Atlanta has to be nervous. And the rest of the contenders in the East are now focusing on the #3 seed, because that’s as high as any of them will get. The Pacers have just acquired their best player mid-season, which is alarming to say the least for all competitors. This team now has a four-headed monster of Griffin, George, Gobert and Westbrook (more on that later) that rivals the top-heavy Spurs and Pelicans, but the Pacers also enjoy decent depth about 10 players deep. Their strategy must now be to trade Dunn for a player who can help now and Exum for whatever they can get.
This spells trouble for Chicago, who should have been the favorites to win the Central. That roster, even with Kevin Durant, just has too many holes to keep pace (pun intended) with Indiana. And somehow they’re even behind the Bucks now. Time to re-jigger.
Atlanta has just been so good so far that their spot atop the East probably remains safe. But can they really beat Indy in the Eastern finals? It’ll be a hell of a matchup. Both teams need to stay healthy.
And now the other trade:
LAC receives: Isaiah Whitehead, Wade Baldwin IV and the Bucks’ 1st round pick
SAC receives: Chris Paul
As a commissioner in this league I do feel obligated to censor myself here. Enough has been said about this trade. The only things left to say are 1. Congrats, Kings and 2. We’ll all be keeping a close eye on how many All-Star games Whitehead plays in.
NEW LEADER IN THE WILD WILD WEST
For forever, it seemed like the Spurs would lock down the Southwest Division with New Orleans just behind. But the Pelicans have been getting hotter and hotter thanks in large part to Joel Embiid, the Living Meme, and the Spurs have fallen off just a little bit and actually look just a little bit thin, especially with recent injuries.
Over the past month, New Orleans has five players averaging 40 points or more per game. The trio of Davis, Embiid (when healthy) and Bledsoe alone give you almost 170 points a night. And the team just got even better by acquiring Nerlens Noel and Jamal Murray for a pick. Sure, let’s just give this team every single young and talented player in the NBA. AND Ben Simmons hasn’t even played yet – and for all we know he could become the best player on this team. AND they’re $30 million under the cap. AND they have a lottery pick this year, and two more next year. Jesus. The more I look at this roster the more I just want to quit because this team will be one of the two or three best teams in the league for at least the next 10 years. The one worry right now, of course, is centered on the health of Embiid’s knee. How much longer will he be out?
So what happened to the Spurs? Well, it’s really not that anything happened to them, per se – it’s more that good things happened to the teams around them. The Spurs have been very quiet in the trade market this year, and why wouldn’t you be when you have Kawhi, Drummond and Towns? But the problem for the Spurs is depth. Wilson Chandler isn’t good enough to be your fourth-best player if you want to win a championship. Teams like the Pelicans, Trail Blazers and Warriors have added more pieces to build up some depth while the Spurs have remained stagnant. San Antonio has a strong top eight, but if one or two of their stars isn’t playing more than one game in a given period, this team is beatable. With Lin out there is no bench to speak of here. They’re still in prime position in the West to advance to the conference finals, but a real danger exists that New Orleans will leave them in the dust, or that another playoff team with a big three like Portland or Utah could surprise them early.
INDIANA: BACK WITH A VENGEANCE
There will be no Finals loss hangover for the Pacers, it appears, as the team has reloaded with Griffin and Russell Westbrook, who is currently putting together one of the best statistical seasons of the past 25 years. Let’s examine this trade because I’ve already gushed enough about this Indy team. (OK, one more: I’ve never seen a team add two absolute ringers like this before, ever.)
IND receives: Westbrook, Brandon Knight and (somehow also?!) Phoenix’s 2018 1st round pick
PHX receives: Zach LaVine, Jabari Parker and Kris Dunn
I think the one thing we’ve learned (or really I guess we still haven’t) is that you should never, ever trade a superstar. There’s a reason it doesn’t happen in the real NBA. The return is almost never anything close to equal value and is almost always done because the player says he wants to leave town – but our players don’t get a choice in free agency. We saw what happened when OKC traded Durant and Westbrook. We saw the Durant trade earlier this year. We saw the Clippers trades. And now this.
I will say that this trade is the closest to equal value for a superstar that we’ve seen so far, but Indiana still wins this by a mile. Westbrook scores over 70 PPG. End of story. If I’m trading Westbrook, it means I’m rebuilding, and there’s no way I’m including pot sweeteners like Knight and my own pick next year, which, for Phoenix, looks like it could be in the lottery. Still, the return pieces are actually worthwhile. Parker played at an All-Star level this season, but one wonders how he’ll bounce back from a second torn ACL in three seasons. The reports are that he’s looking at a 12-month rehab period, so not only is he done for the rest of this season, but also for the majority of next season, as well. LaVine is another ACL tear victim, and was putting together a great campaign in his own right. He’s another question mark in terms of how he’ll play post-surgery: his game is so dependent on his explosiveness and athleticism, and some guys are never the same after a serious knee injury. For Dunn, I’ll just say this: the jury is basically still out on him, but in my opinion he’s looked like basically the worst player in the NBA this season and his lack of polish for a soon-to-be 23-year-old who spent three years in college hoops is kind of shocking.
PLAYOFF SEEDS SETTLING
It’s pretty much all but settled at this point which teams are in. Let’s take a look at the current order:
- New Orleans
- San Antonio
- Golden State
I wrote “In the hunt” for both conferences but then there were no teams to put there. These are your 16 playoff teams, folks. Lock it up and prepare accordingly. See the rest of you (or whoever owns your picks) in the lottery.
All-Star Weekend is almost here! Let’s get hype and pick the Real Deal All-Star team for the 2016-17 season. (To decide these lists I just looked at who’s scored the most points. Nice and easy.)
G: Russell Westbrook, IND
G: John Wall, WAS
F: Kevin Durant, CHI
F: Giannis Antetokuonmpo, MIL
F: LeBron James, CLE
Hassan Whiteside, CHI; Kyle Lowry, TOR; Rudy Gobert, IND; Kemba Walker, CHA; Carmelo Anthony, CLE; Draymond Green, CLE; Paul Millsap, ATL
A few interesting notes here: 1. Cleveland, a bottom seed in the playoffs, has three All-Stars. Atlanta, comfortably the best team in the league, barely has one. See, people, depth is important! There is also only one All-Star from a non-playoff team (Wall) and only two teams besides Cleveland have more than one All-Star (Chicago and Indiana).
G: James Harden, HOU
G: Stephen Curry, GS
F: DeMarcus Cousins, SAC
F: Anthony Davis, NO
F: Karl-Anthony Towns, SA
Andre Drummond, SA; Isaiah Thomas, PHO; Eric Bledsoe, NO; Jimmy Butler, POR; DeAndre Jordan, POR; Marc Gasol, MEM; Kawhi Leonard, SA
Seven of the 12 All-Stars belong to just three teams: New Orleans, San Antonio and Portland. Utah is the only playoff team without an All-Star. And Marc Gasol is the only All-Star not on a playoff team.