Suns lead way as teams retool for stretch run in the NBA’s wild, wild West
Late Wednesday night, in the back hallways of Crypto.com Arena, there was a nervous energy as executives, staffers and players from the Dallas Mavericks and Clippers checked their phones while milling around in the aftermath of Dallas’ victory. It was the last night before the NBA’s noon Thursday trade deadline, and while the Mavericks’ roster had already undergone a radical reshuffling, the Clippers were waiting for their own.
Typically, activity around trade deadlines picks up in the immediate hours beforehand. But with 13 hours remaining, as Paul George was addressing reporters about Kyrie Irving’s Dallas debut and the Clippers’ defense, those once listening to George began staring at their phones with incredulity at news of Phoenix’s late-night strike to acquire Kevin Durant from Brooklyn, and pair him alongside Chris Paul and Devin Booker.
It was, by far, the biggest and most stunning trade of the deadline. But when it had passed, five days of trade activity that began in earnest with Dallas adding Irving had left a clear takeaway.
“The demise of the Nets just made the West a lot tougher,” one league insider said.
As trade season intensified last week, Denver sat atop the West as the conference’s clear-cut leader in record and consistency. It was trailed by a pack united by vulnerability, from Sacramento’s lack of postseason experience to Dallas’ defensive holes, to the lack of continuity established by Phoenix, Memphis, the Clippers and the Lakers because of injuries.
After the deadline, one league executive believed there are now six bona fide contenders in the West and three in the East. Four league insiders surveyed on the condition of anonymity believed nearly every Finals aspirant in the West had improved, intensifying the playoff fights to come in the spring.
The Clippers add depth to bench by acquiring Mason Plumlee, Bones Hyland and Eric Gordon while parting ways with point guards John Wall and Reggie Jackson.
Denver added former Lakers big man Thomas Bryant and traded second-year wing Bones Hyland to the Clippers, a move the Denver Post described as “addition by subtraction” after Hyland had grown unsatisfied with his role.
Memphis added Luke Kennard, a 44.8% three-point shooter during three seasons with the Clippers, as an outlet for dynamic point guard Ja Morant.
Dallas looked dynamic in Irving’s debut, teasing the team’s possibilities when Luka Doncic returns from a heel injury.
The Clippers added backup center Mason Plumlee to fill a void on its depth chart while acquiring Hyland and guard Eric Gordon from Houston, reshuffling its guard rotation.
Golden State brought back Gary Payton II from last season’s championship team, and Minnesota grabbed a point guard — Mike Conley — familiar with center Rudy Gobert.
Only Sacramento stood pat at the deadline. And in 13th place are the Lakers, after they upgraded their rebounding and shooting while sending out five players and taking back five more. More transactions are coming in the buyout market. The star power of Durant, Paul and Booker could attract the best available free agents. Former Lakers and Clippers guards Patrick Beverley and Reggie Jackson will be among that pool, and former Lakers guard Russell Westbrook will be looking for a new home, too, though multiple people, granted anonymity to discuss matters across the league that are not yet official, expressed skepticism it would be with the Clippers.
One of the people surveyed cautioned that Phoenix, because of how many picks and players it sent to Brooklyn to get Durant had locked itself into what was perhaps a two-year championship window at most — but also acknowledged that in that window, it would have the services of Durant, who remains at 34 one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the NBA.
“It’s hard not to bet against the Suns right now,” they said.
Dennis Schroder scored 25 points and Anthony Davis had 23, but the short-handed Lakers fell short against the Milwaukee Bucks 115-106 on Thursday.
Yet for all of the changing faces, the West champion will, in all likelihood, be determined by factors that have been apparent all season.
With the exception of Phoenix and Dallas, whose trades reshaped the nucleus of each, the fate of the West’s contenders hinge on their long-established cores. The trades made in recent days might optimize those cores to reach their full potential, but it’s doubtful any could overcompensate for them if they fall short.
The Nuggets’ hopes revolve, as ever, around Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray looking like their 2020 selves. Golden State’s aspirations to repeat, once again, center on Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.
The Clippers’ aspirations hinge on Kawhi Leonard and George playing like All-Stars at each end of the court, just as the Lakers’ hopes are tied to LeBron James and Anthony
In Memphis, Morant holds the keys, and Zion Williamson’s health is the wild card in New Orleans.
Even if Durant returns to his unstoppable offensive form, it will take Paul and Booker learning how to play off him for Phoenix’s big bet to pay off. One needs only to look at his experience in Brooklyn to understand how a three-star team can crumble.
“I don’t know who’s more talented, on paper,” one scout said of Phoenix.
The caveat is important. The trade calls are finished, and now the games begin.
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