These N.B.A. Contenders Just Got Better

The N.B.A.’s trade deadline on Thursday featured more than a dozen trades — some surprising, some not so much. Several players named Gary were traded (Trent Jr., Clark, Harris). Miami was the biggest winner, acquiring Victor Oladipo and, separately, Nemanja Bjelica.

Many of the top teams in the league stood pat. The Los Angeles Lakers didn’t trade for Kyle Lowry. Their rivals, the Los Angeles Clippers, traded backup point guards: Lou Williams to the Atlanta Hawks for Rajon Rondo. The Philadelphia 76ers added a solid veteran guard in George Hill from the Oklahoma City Thunder.

But did any teams make any moves to vault themselves to title contender status? With roughly a third of the season left, a wide-open N.B.A. season is now showing more signs of a traditional hierarchy.

In the Eastern Conference, entering Sunday’s games, the fourth and 11th seeds were separated by five and a half games. But the third-seeded Milwaukee Bucks were ahead of the No. 4-seeded Charlotte Hornets by five and a half games, establishing a clear top tier. In the West, there was less separation between the top seeds, with the No. 6-seeded Portland Trail Blazers seven games behind the No. 1-seeded Utah Jazz, leaving room for a lot of movement.

Here’s a look at the top-tier contenders from each conference and where they stand after the trade deadline.

The East

Philadelphia 76ers (32-14)

Why They’ll Win the Finals:

The Sixers are deep and well balanced to surround Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. They’ve gone 6-2 without Embiid, who hasn’t played since March 12 because of a knee injury. In that stretch, they beat the Spurs — a likely playoff team — by 35 points and the Kings by 24. In the playoffs, they’ll have Embiid, a matchup nightmare and a candidate for the Most Valuable Player Award. They have also had an elite defense all season, and been boosted by a career year for Tobias Harris.

Adding George Hill, who led the league in 3-point shooting last season, was a good move by the Sixers’ front office. He plays solid defense, has a lot of playoff experience and gives Embiid and Simmons more room to work.

Why They Won’t: Health. Embiid has missed roughly a third of the season and has had conditioning issues. Also, Embiid and Simmons have struggled in past playoffs to produce at a high level as defenses focused more on them. And as good as Embiid and Simmons are, if the Nets and the Bucks are healthy, Philadelphia won’t have the best top-end players on the floor if they meet.

Milwaukee Bucks (29-16)

Why They’ll Win the Finals: The Bucks made a significant acquisition with P.J. Tucker, the gritty, defensive-minded forward who gives Milwaukee another perimeter threat. The team is finally showing itself to be the juggernaut it was predicted to be in the preseason, going 13-3 in its last 16 games. The Bucks are deep, and Giannis Antetokounmpo may very well win his third straight M.V.P. Award this season. They have one of the league’s best offenses and a top-10 defense.

The Tucker trade freed up roster spots, giving the Bucks room to add a free agent. (Austin Rivers and Kelly Olynyk, who were recently traded, could be great fits here if they are bought out of their contracts or released.)

Why They Won’t: Once again, the Bucks are having a great regular season. Ultimately, the Bucks will only advance if Antetokounmpo isn’t flummoxed by playoff defenses, as he has been. He is shooting only 30 percent from deep, so expect opposing teams to continue to pack the paint when he has the ball.

Brooklyn Nets (31-15)

Why They’ll Win the Finals: The Nets are a cheat code. Since Feb. 14, they have had the league’s fifth best offense. Why is that date relevant? Because Kevin Durant has not played at all in that time because of an injured left hamstring. The Nets have an elite offense and they’re not even playing one of the greatest offensive players in the history of the game. James Harden has been exceptional. He leads the league in assists, despite not having Durant to pass to for most of his time with the Nets. The team is 17-3 in its last 20 games — almost entirely without Durant.

And the Nets just added LaMarcus Aldridge in addition to their recent signing of Blake Griffin.

Why They Won’t: It’s one thing to navigate the regular season without Durant. But in the playoffs, that creates different challenges. Is he definitely going to be healthy for the playoffs? And even if he is, given how ball dominant he is, will there be enough time to mesh with Harden and Kyrie Irving properly?

Miami Heat (22-24)

Why They’ll Win the Finals: Yes, the Heat are under .500. But they did make the N.B.A. finals last year despite being a lower seed, and they have most of the same players this year. Their record is mostly a result of health. Jimmy Butler, their best player, missed a bunch of time this season and now is actually having the best campaign of his career, averaging career highs in field-goal percentage, rebounds and assists. The team also added Victor Oladipo, another playmaker, to help share responsibility with Butler.

Why They Won’t It’s tough to capture lightning in a bottle twice, and the rest of the contenders have better top-level talent. In 20 games with Houston, Oladipo played poorly — averaging 21.2 points on only 40.7 percent shooting from the field. The Heat have lost six in a row, and in general have been inconsistent. It’s hard to believe that a sub-.500 team this late in the season can win a title.

The West

Utah Jazz (34-11)

Why They’ll Win the Finals: In the early stages of the pandemic, dysfunction swirled around the Jazz. Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell had a relationship that was on the rocks. But they began to reassemble their chemistry in the bubble, and now Utah has the best record in the N.B.A. Mitchell has emerged as a star — one who is fully capable of lifting his team into title contention. The difference this season is that he and Gobert have more help, and the Jazz are overwhelming teams from the 3-point line.

Why They Won’t: Aside from their pockmarked playoff history, the Jazz play in a conference packed with championship-tested players, luminaries who are identifiable by their first names (LeBron, Kawhi) and know what it takes to make deep trips through the postseason. The Jazz, on the other hand, have not reached the conference finals since 2007.

Los Angeles Clippers (31-16)

Why They’ll Win the Finals: The Clippers faced questions after their meltdown in the bubble. (You’ll recall that they blew a 3-1 series lead over the Nuggets in the conference semifinals.) Paul George absorbed much of the criticism for his poor play. He has had his ups and downs this season — who hasn’t? — but appears to be in better form. The Clippers are contenders because of Kawhi Leonard, but George’s postseason play will determine if they are actually capable of winning it all.

Why They Won’t: The Clippers hope that Rajon Rondo, whom they acquired at the trade deadline, can provide the sort of leadership they were missing last season. But they still lack depth at the point, and the team has been terrible in clutch situations, dating to last season’s bubble implosion. Championship teams are adept at closing out games. The Clippers are not.

Los Angeles Lakers (29-17 entering Sunday)

Why They’ll Win the Finals: LeBron James and Anthony Davis showed the damage they could do together last season when they rolled through the playoffs in leading the Lakers to their first championship since 2010. It was a resurgent season for James, in particular, and it proved (if anyone needed proof) that a team with two of the top players on the planet is a pretty safe bet to make a championship run, no matter the complementary pieces. James and Davis, of course, are back this season — and if they are healthy for the playoffs, look out.

Why They Won’t: James (ankle) and Davis (calf) are not healthy, and that is an enormous problem — for now, if not forever. Davis has not played since Feb. 14, and Coach Frank Vogel said recently that Davis was “still a ways away.” The Lakers were already struggling without him when James sprained his ankle on March 20. He could be sidelined for at least another month. At the same time, a host of lesser Lakers have labored with their shooting strokes: Markieff Morris, Alex Caruso, Wesley Matthews, Dennis Schroder, Marc Gasol. Take your pick. Is it windy?

Phoenix Suns (31-14)

Why They’ll Win the Finals: In hindsight, the Suns’ nifty footwork in acquiring Chris Paul in the off-season was one of the best moves an up-and-coming team could have made. He brought experience, toughness and defense to a team that was making big leaps — the Suns closed out the 2019-20 regular season by going undefeated in the bubble — and he has allowed Devin Booker to play off the ball. The window is closing for Paul, an 11-time All-Star who, at 35, has never played in an N.B.A. finals. In this topsy-turvy, anything-goes season, perhaps this is the moment when he finally makes it happen.

Why They Won’t: Inexperience. Booker, the team’s best player, has yet to get a taste of the postseason. The reality is that it’s asking a lot of a young group of players to make a very deep push in its first run through the playoffs, even if Paul is guiding the group.

Denver Nuggets (27-18, entering Sunday)

Why They’ll Win the Finals: Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray continue to evolve and improve, and the time is now for the team to capitalize. The Nuggets’ front office signaled as much at the trade deadline when it acquired Aaron Gordon and JaVale McGee, veterans who should help improve the team’s middling defense. Gordon also gives the Nuggets another scoring option.

Why They Won’t: The Nuggets have been wildly inconsistent this season, and it didn’t help that they lost Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee — two valuable role players — in free agency. Michael Porter Jr., who has surfaced as the team’s third scorer, has huge potential but has missed a lot of time and is still developing.

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