Who would’ve guessed that the Eastern Conference race would be dictated by actions taken in a room all the way across the country? Who would’ve thought that a team headed for the playoffs would move one of its best players in a bet on the future? Who would’ve thought that that team would be able to clear cap space and improve talent as the clock ticked down?
And who would’ve possibly thought that the team doing all of this would be the Clippers?
While the Lakers tried to dominate the deadline — and acquiring New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis would’ve meant that — the Clippers were the L.A. team that had the rest of the league reacting.
The late Tuesday trade that sent Tobias Harris to the Philadelphia 76ers helped start a chain reaction of upgrades by contenders in the East, with the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks also adding key players.
The Raptors took the biggest swing, dealing for 34-year-old Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol by giving up Delon Wright, Jonas Valanciunas, C.J. Miles and a future second-round pick.
In Gasol, they have a defensive savant who can also stretch defenses to the three-point line. He’s also another terrific passer to complement Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard.
The Bucks, who lead the Eastern Conference in three-point shot attempts, added Nikola Mirotic in a trade that sent recently acquired Stanley Johnson and four second-round picks to New Orleans. Mirotic, who has been banged up this season and is currently dealing with a sore calf, averages more than seven three-point attempts per game and has made 37%.
It’s a natural fit for Mirotic, who has one year left on his contract.
The other top team in the East, the Boston Celtics, won at the trade deadline in another way. With Davis staying put, the door is open for the Celtics to put together a package of young players and draft picks to offer the Pelicans this summer. That’s clearly a win. But will the speculation about who would be outgoing in a deal (maybe Jayson Tatum) disrupt what’s already been a delicate balance in the Celtics locker room? That remains to be seen.
The other big move in the East came from the Philadelphia 76ers, who officially moved on from Markelle Fultz, the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA draft. To the surprise of some league executives who thought Fultz might have negative value, the 76ers extracted from the Orlando Magic a protected first-round pick, a second-round pick and wing Jonathan Simmons, who will bolster their rotation.
For Fultz, it’s a fresh start in a low-pressure situation in Orlando. For the 76ers, it capped an active week that might leave them as the favorites to win the East.
The 76ers head toward the playoffs with a starting lineup of Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid, possibly the best starting five in the league other than the Golden State Warriors’ absurdly talented quintet.
The Western Conference was quieter Thursday, with the status quo seemingly obvious.
The Warriors did nothing. They’ll wait to see which players get bought out of their deals and hit the market. Same goes for the Houston Rockets, who did some salary cap maneuvering and ended up opening roster spots for the buyout market.
That market could be filled with big-name players such as Enes Kanter, Wesley Matthews Jr., Zach Randolph, Wayne Ellington and possibly Robin Lopez joining Carmelo Anthony.
The Utah Jazz were unable to land Mike Conley, though a deal was discussed. The Lakers, of course, missed out on Davis. The Portland Trail Blazers didn’t do much after getting Rodney Hood earlier in the week. The Oklahoma City Thunder, Denver Nuggets and San Antonio Spurs all held pat.
The Sacramento Kings might have made the most impactful move Wednesday, getting Harrison Barnes from the Dallas Mavericks and putting themselves in position to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
But no one in the conference was as active as the Clippers, who for the second year in a row made splashy moves with an eye toward the future.
Coming out of the deadline, the Clippers have more young talent (Landry Shamet and Ivica Zubac) than they had before it. Same goes for draft picks and salary cap space. While losing Harris is a big blow, the Clippers also added veteran help by acquiring Garrett Temple and JaMychal Green from the Grizzlies in a deal that cleared Avery Bradley from their books.
With the two first-round picks they got in the Harris deal and an increased likelihood of keeping their own pick this year — if they make the playoffs, the pick goes to the Celtics — the Clippers also have a cache of picks to trade.
It puts the Clippers in prime position. They’re closer to having enough space for two max-salary free agents this summer and could very easily create it. They’re closer to being able to acquire superstar talent, Davis included, in the summer of 2020 and beyond. And, they’ve given themselves a fallback plan — players such as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jerome Robinson, Shamet and Zubuc as well as future draft picks — if free agency or trades don’t pan out.
Owner Steve Ballmer and his team’s robust front office might’ve traded the No. 8 seeding in the West for all of that flexibility, all that promise. It was one of the biggest stories of the trade deadline.