Before the trade deadline, the Warriors and the Cavaliers lorded over the NBA and nothing happened to change that perception. But what about the teams that will challenge them in the East and West? Perhaps there was a shakeup.
The Raptors and Rockets made the most significant moves to fortify their lineups without sacrificing their rotation. And those moves were done specifically to strengthen their case as the biggest threats to preventing another NBA Finals repeat.
Houston added another shooter in Lou Williams and an efficient one at that, giving James Harden an additional option in the spread offense. Meanwhile, the Raptors addressed their defense, which is among the worst of the contenders, with Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker. For a team in a mini free-fall, this could jump start them in the right direction.
Williams comes to the Rockets as one of the strong favorites for Sixth Man of the Year, and in a delicious coincidence, joins his biggest competitor for that award in Eric Gordon. And so there are two heated races worth watching: The Williams-Gordon “fight” for that trophy, and Houston’s sprint to the playoffs, both guaranteed to generate buzz.
By getting Williams from the Lakers, the Rockets positioned themselves to have a say in the West and in a best-case scenario, meet the Warriors in the West finals assuming Golden State gets there.
“We’re all in,” said Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni. “We’re definitely committed. We’ve just got to tighten some things up defensively.”
The Rockets were No. 2 in offense (behind Golden State) even before the trade and Williams gives them a turbo boost. He averaged 18.6 points in only 24 minutes with the Lakers and then, fresh off the plane, dropped 27 in his Rockets debut Thursday. He appears a natural fit in D’Antoni’s offense and gives the coach a chance to tinker with Houston’s approach even more.
Depending on the matchups and lineups, the Rockets can put Harden, Williams, Gordon and Ryan Anderson on the floor with a center and force teams to make serious adjustments. Harden is already amped at that possibility.
“We have an opportunity and we want to take advantage of his opportunity,” Harden said after Houston whipped New Orleans by 30 in Williams’ debut. “We’re in that third spot and we’re trying to get better. We’re trying to get on the same page and make this push. We’ve got an opportunity to win as many games as we can.”
The wink-wink goal for Houston is to avoid the No. 4 spot in the West, which would mean a possible meeting with the Warriors in the conference semifinals barring no surprises along the way. In any event, Houston’s up-tempo, quick-shooting offense can give any team fits. While the Rockets didn’t address defensive and rebounding areas at the trade deadline, their motto is: Try to keep up with us.
"I think we needed this. I think this team deserves this chance."
It was another story north of the border where the Raptors went all-in defensively. Team president Masai Ujiri gave Toronto the dimension and depth it badly needed with Tucker and Ibaka, and with the East up for grabs behind Cleveland, he possibly gave the Raptors the necessary edge.
The Raptors lost a bit of defensive edge last summer when Bismack Biyombo signed a surprisingly large free agent contract in Orlando; he was a rock in Toronto’s East semifinals loss to Cleveland. As a result, Toronto suffered a lapse through the first two-thirds of this season and allowed 45 percent shooting.
Even more pressing was the interior toughness the Raptors were lacking, which is exactly the DNA that Tucker brings. He was the unquestioned leader in Phoenix and often guarded the opposition’s best scorer. Tucker can match up against three positions, and is the extra body Toronto will need should the East see a rematch in the East finals.
While no one has proven to stop LeBron James one-on-one, Tucker can supply a physical presence and at least make it tougher for James to score.
Ibaka somewhat addresses the need for a rim protector. Five years ago he was among the best in the NBA. But his game and defensive mindset have evolved. Rather than be a presence under the basket, Ibaka is more of an on-ball defender, which has resulted in fewer blocks but not necessarily weaker defense. Again, he’ll come in handy in a potential Toronto-Cleveland matchup because of his mentality and physical presence.
As an added bonus, Ibaka brings another shooter; his range has slowly improved to the point where he’s comfortable taking three-pointers.
“Everything always looks pretty on paper,” Ujiri said. “Now we have to go out and play and execute. I think we needed this. I think this team deserves this chance.”
Toronto’s potential lineup of DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas and DeMarre Carroll seemingly covers plenty of areas and concerns, with a solid bench corp led by Tucker and Norman Powell. They also have the remaining month-and-a-half to get acclimated and make a move in the East, where they’re in a cluster with the Celtics and Wizards right behind Cleveland.
The Celtics refused to pull the trigger on any major deal, opting to keep its precious first-round picks from Brooklyn, while the Wizards sat out the trade deadline as well. In the West, the Spurs once again were silent at the deadline and the Clippers, too strapped by the cap to make any significant additions, await the return of Chris Paul from injury.
Which means the trade deadline failed to give sleepless nights with the Warriors and Cavs, for now anyway. Meanwhile, the Rockets and Raptors are making plans for early summer, hoping their changes will make a difference then.
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