After 20 or so games this year, there a few things we know for sure:
1. The Heat are/will be a contender as long as LeBron is on the court, but the margin for error has gotten smaller.
2. The Western Conference is incredibly deep; excluding the Suns (who should eventually return to the their tanking roots), there are 12 teams competing for eight spots. Further proof lies in the fact that last year’s playoff darlings, the Golden State Warriors, are currently in the eighth and final spot. (In all fairness, they are missing do-it-all stud Andre Iguodala.)
3. The Eastern Conference is incredibly ____. Awful? Terrible? No good? Ok, you get the point; outside of Indiana and Miami there isn’t a team that can legitimately be called a contender. Standing 8-10, Chicago is currently in the eighth spot in the East. There are five teams out West (Phoenix, Minnesota, the Lakers, New Orleans and Memphis) with better records than Chicago that are currently out of the playoffs.
The reality of the situation is that this year’s NBA champion will be either Indy, Miami or from a group of perhaps three Western Conference teams. Sadly there has to be eight representatives from the East, meaning there are teams vying for one of the remaining six playoff spots in the East that have no real shot at winning anything. Who is going to knock the Pacers of the Heat out? Atlanta, without a go-to scorer? Boston (who was supposed to be tanking as we speak, but is instead winning) behind wunderkind first-year coach Brad Stevens? How about the Charlotte Bobcat-soontobeHornets, led behind the tremendous trio of Al Jefferson, Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson? Don’t think so.
That won’t stop some teams from pushing for a spot: the Cavs and owner Dan Gilbert are tired of the losing (and more importantly want to show LeBron they can win); Washington’s coach and GM are fighting for their jobs, as no playoffs probably means no jobs; and Detroit just spent a pretty penny on their new cast of “pretty-good but not great” nucleus. Heck, even the Bucks were all-in on a playoff run before injuries to center Larry Sanders and point guard Brandon Knight brought them down to Earth. With a solid core group of players, the Raptors were supposed to be in that group. Until today.
At the start of the season, the perennial cellar-dwelling Toronto Raptors were poised to make a playoff run. But with news of a Rudy Gay-to-Sacramento deal taking place, new Raptors GM Masai Ujiri (part super GM-part cap clearing expert) sent the message loud and clear that the Raptors weren’t good enough to compete in the playoffs. That’s refreshing to see. I’m all for a competitive league, but why compete for mediocrity?
To win in the NBA’s current landscape, you either need 2-3 stars and a group of cheap veterans and young sleepers (AKA the Heat/Rockets mold), or you need to develop your players, draft well, sign an above-average player here and there, and hope one of your young guys turns into a franchise guy (the Pacers/Spurs/Bulls/Thunder prototype). Or land a franchise-changer from the get-go. In recent history, nobody outside of the 2011 Mavs — a team led by a rejuvenated Dirk and a group of veterans that totally bought into the system/played with amazing chemistry — there hasn’t been any other way. Ujiri, a former Executive of the Year winner with the Nuggets (who executed the Carmelo trade, which is looking better every day), knows this and isn’t aiming for mediocrity in Toronto. Didn’t the Drake partnership tell you anything?
With nobody outside of young center Jonas Valanciunas being untouchable, the Raptors are officially tanking, err rebuilding. And they should be. This is looking to be the best group of prospects since the 2003 Draft class. Most scouts seem to agree this draft has around five or six players with All-Star to superstar potential, and many more that could be above-average to near All-Star levels. If you’re going to end up in the lottery, this is the year to do it.
Furthering that is the possibility Toronto could land Andrew Wiggins — a Canadian — to be the face of the city (like LeBron was in Cleveland). Reports indicate the Raptors will continue to be active and hope to acquire more and more draft picks. With the contracts of both John Salmons and Chuck Hayes ending after next season (and Salmons’ is non-guaranteed), Ujiri didn’t exactly hide the fact this was a salary dumper. But it could be more. Maybe Greivis Vasquez will allow them to trade Kyle Lowry away. Ditto for Patrick Patterson (who by the way, looks like a nice fit spreading the floor next to a paint clogger like Valanciunas). Toronto can see exactly what they have with those two young players. I might even be talked into Salmons and Hayes providing needed veteran leadership (okay, maybe I didn’t know Salmons was still in the NBA, but still). They have one piece of the puzzle with Valanciunas, but the rest are all question marks.
So the question is, what’s next? Is DeMar DeRozan (21.6 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 2.8 APG, shooting 36 percent from three-point land) next to go? Or could he have a mini Paul George transformation over the year and become a more effective version next year (probably not)?. Surely Kyle Lowry (14.8 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 6.7 APG) is on the block in the last year of his very manageable contract. Wouldn’t he be a great bench addition for the Spurs or Pacers?
The Kings are going in the opposite direction. They have their franchise player (Boogie Cousins!), young developing players they hope will take further steps (Isaiah Thomas, Ben McLemore and Derrick Williams), and a few necessary role players (irrational streaky shooter Marcus Thornton, glue-guy big man Carl Landry). This trade could be one of two things: a short-term “playoff pusher” or another risky long-term investment.
There are still questions to be answered: Is Rudy Gay still a top 30 player? Will he opt out and become a free agent at season’s end, or will he take the guaranteed $19-plus million next year? (Not really a question, no one is turning down that kind of money, but it needs to be said anyway.) Do the Kings plan on re-signing him? Are there enough balls in the city of Sacramento to keep everyone happy? Will stat sheets be banned from Boogie’s locker room?
Kings new owner Vivek RanadivÃ© hasn’t been afraid of risks since taking over, and is clearly pushing them out of the cellar. With a savvy new GM in Pete D’Alessandro (formerly of Denver and Golden State) and coach Mike Malone (who seems to have a good relationship with Boogie, a necessity), the pieces are slowly forming a — dare I say it — Pacers West? We’re a good draft and free agency away from real competency in Sacramento. Think about it! [Eds. note: We did. We still don’t see it. But people can dream.]
What this trade illustrated was the different forces at play in the NBA. Everyone wants to keep fans happy and make the playoffs, but at what cost? With one team fading and one team pushing forward, who is the real winner? I guess we’ll have to keep watching to find out.
Who do you think won this trade?
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