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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Path to the NBA title is still wide open

How this year’s trade deadline will shape the season

With the trade deadline passed as we approach the 2020 NBA All-Star Break, we now have a more clear idea of which teams are contenders and which teams are pretenders. 

Running up to this year’s deadline, there were no rumors or stories suggesting trades of superstar players — like those of Anthony Davis from a year ago. Though this season’s moves lacked in overall name-recognition, they were still impactful. Some may even be the difference in getting certain teams to the top. 

Perhaps the most notable trade came from the Miami Heat, which acquired 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala from the Memphis Grizzlies. The 36-year-old subsequently agreed to a two-year, $30 million extension with the team, ending a short, bitter tenure with the Memphis squad. 

Iguodala adds another quality wing defender to a Miami squad that currently sits fourth in the Eastern Conference standings. After surprising many experts with its early success this season, the move informs the rest of the league that the Heat is serious about contending for a title. In addition to Iguodala, Miami also acquired Solomon Hill and Jae Crowder to fill in for the losses of Dion Waiters, Justise Winslow and James Johnson. Iguodala’s addition was one of the bigger moves in a somewhat quiet deadline even though he was not the best player on the market.

Possibly the most interesting and biggest gamble of the deadline came from the Houston Rockets, which were a part of a massive four-team, 12-player trade involving the Denver Nuggets, Atlanta Hawks and Minnesota Timberwolves. The Rockets parted with center Clint Capela, who went to Atlanta, and instead acquired Minnesota’s Robert Covington, one of the most coveted trade targets of this year. 

What  makes this trade particularly interesting is that Houston will move forward with a starting lineup of players who are all under 6’7. With no true center, the Rockets will continue to rely heavily on analytics and go into the playoffs with a strategy that prioritizes scoring in bunches to offset a near-nonexistent interior defense. 

The move that involved the biggest-name players of the deadline was also one that may have little to no significance on the result of this season. That was the move which sent former Golden State Warriors guard D’Angelo Russell to the Minnesota Timberwolves, joining his long-time friend Karl Anthony Towns on a struggling team.

After an impressive start to their season, the Timberwolves fell near the bottom of the Western Conference, and the pressure to keep their young star happy was on. In exchange for Russell, Minnesota parted ways with former number one overall pick Andrew Wiggins, a 2021 protected first-round draft pick and a 2021 second-round pick. The move is unlikely to affect much of this season in terms of standings. However, both teams hope this trade will improve their chances of rebuilding their brand.

Led by Kawhi Leonard, the Los Angeles Clippers strengthened their chances of reaching the NBA Finals by acquiring an excellent two-way player, Marcus Morris, from the New York Knicks. After signing a one-year deal with the New York squad over the summer, Morris excelled on a struggling Knicks team, averaging almost 20 points a game and shooting 44% from three.

In addition to his great offensive numbers, the 30-year-old is a fierce defender who will pair well with the Clippers in the Western Conference. There, they will almost surely match him up against the elite wing players. The move only adds fuel to those who believe that the Clippers rank as the best team in Los Angeles and the favorite to win it all. It is hard to call it a rivalry due to the lack of meaningful games played so far, but the growing tension between both L.A. squads continues to leak beyond the hardwood courts. 

After then-free agent Leonard told the Lakers to wait for him to make a decision and then chose the Clippers, the Lakers felt as though they had been played. Since then, a clear battle for supremacy between both sides has emerged, as seen both times the teams have gone head-to-head this year. This rivalry made its way into the trade deadline, as both teams were trying to acquire Morris from the Knicks. After New York reportedly asked for young asset Kyles Kuzma, veteran Danny Green and a draft pick from the Lakers, the Lakers ultimately decided not to pursue the deal. They believed they would be giving up too much for just one player. As a result, Morris ended up with the Clippers for Maurice Harkless, a first-round pick, a second-rounder and a pick swap. 

Rumors regarding the Lakers’ willingness to make deals as the deadline approached were rampant, and Kuzma was at the center of almost all the potential deals. But it seems the tragic and sudden passing of franchise legend Kobe Bryant may have played a large role in the teams’ more quiet approach. 

“Through it all, a source said, the Lakers’ pursuit of roster changes in the past week was half-hearted,” wrote Sean Deveney of Heavy. “And that goes back to the tragic helicopter crash that took the life of Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others on Jan. 26, just 11 days ahead of the trade deadline.”

Trades take a lot of time to develop, and the tragedy seemed like a plausible explanation for why a contending team was not able to do anything to bolster its chances. 

Past the halfway point of the season, it is clear which teams are in the hunt for a championship and why some of the smaller deals of the deadline could be crucial in the long run. As it stands, the Los Angeles teams are the top two in the Western Conference standings, with the Lakers having a slight edge over the Clippers. The Western Conference playoff position will likely go down to the wire in the fight for a home-court advantage.

In the Eastern Conference, the Milwaukee Bucks hold a comfortable grip on the top seed as they hope to reach the Finals this year. They are arguably the best team in the NBA with reigning league MVP and fan-favorite Giannis Antetokounmpo. According to DraftKings, the Lakers hold +275 odds to win the championship even after the deadline moves, with the Bucks not too far off at +300. The Clippers come in at +333 and after them comes a huge gap, with fourth place being the recently-struggling Philadelphia 76ers at +1400. 

In a season that has so far been one of the more open ones in recent memory,it appears that there are three teams that have a realistic chance to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy this upcoming June. But that’s the beauty of sports: We never know until it’s over. 

Written by: Omar Navarro — sports@theaggie.org


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