Can we get to the Eastern Conference semifinals already?
The Western Conference remains the stronger conference overall. Through Thursday, the West is 170-128 in interconference games, set to have the better cumulative record for the 20th time in the last 21 seasons. And the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors are still the clear favorite to win the 2019 NBA Finals.
But the East may have four of the best five teams in the league. The Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers are the only four teams in the league that rank in the top 12 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and three of those four teams made significant upgrades at the trade deadline. The fourth -- Boston -- is the one that reached Game 7 of the conference finals without its best player last year.
The Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors all brought their upgrades from the West. Let's dive into the deadline moves regarding the three teams that will likely fight with the Celtics to be the first non-LeBron James team to represent the East in The Finals since 2010 (with apologies to the resilient Indiana Pacers, who moved into third place in the East with a win over the Clippers on Thursday)...
A 'big 5' in Philadelphia
Trade 1: Philadelphia traded Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala, Landry Shamet, two first-round picks (2020, '21) and two second-round picks to the Clippers for Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic and Mike Scott.
Trade 2: The Sixers acquired James Ennis from Houston in exchange for a swap of 2021 second-round picks.
Trade 3: The Sixers traded Markelle Fultz to Orlando for Jonathon Simmons, a 2019 first-round pick, and a 2019 second-round pick.
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Exactly one year before they made the Harris trade (on Feb. 6, 2018), the Sixers were 25-25 and tied with the Detroit Pistons for eighth place in the Eastern Conference. Since then, things have accelerated quickly. They went 27-5 to close the 2017-18 regular season, won a playoff series, and have been big-game hunting ever since.
With their two All-Stars only 22 and 24 years old, the Sixers could have maintained patience. But four weeks into the season, they added to their urgency by trading two starters (both under contract beyond this season) for Jimmy Butler, who has the option to become a free agent this summer.
The Sixers are 21-11 with Butler, but just 1-3 against Boston (0-1) and Toronto (1-2, with Kawhi Leonard having missed the one game the Sixers won). They haven't played Milwaukee since the second week of the season (and they lost that game too).
The Sixers' starting lineup with Butler and Chandler outscored its opponents by 13 points per 100 possessions, the fifth-best mark among 28 lineups that have played at least 200 minutes together. Harris in Chandler's place makes that lineup more potent; Harris is one of five players that have averaged at least 20 points per game while shooting 45 percent or better from the field and 40 percent or better from 3-point range. He has an effective field goal percentage of 51.8 percent on pull-up jumpers, the eighth-best mark among 54 players who have attempted at least 200 (with teammate J.J. Redick one of the six players ahead of him).
But Harris, like Butler before him, will have an adjustment to make with his new team. With the Clippers this season, he had a career-high usage rate of 23.3 percent and had been assisted on just 46.5 percent of his field goals (down from 59.3 percent last season). Chandler had a usage rate of just 11.2 percent when he played with the Sixers' other four starters.
But the Sixers stagger the minutes of their starters, so that (when they're all healthy) there at least two on the floor at all times. Since Butler's first game with the Sixers, he and Simmons have played 910 minutes together, Redick and Embiid have played 862 minutes together, and the four have all been on the floor together for just 375 minutes total. Part of that is some missed games here and there, but really, adding Harris to the mix is not just about how all five guys fit together.
That's where the Sixers' other two trades come in. The Sixers' starting lineup (with Chandler) averaged just 12.7 minutes per game together. Last season's starting lineup (the best high-usage lineup in the league) averaged just 12.3 minutes per game together (and just 9.2 in the playoffs). That leaves more than 35 minutes per game where other guys need to contribute.
And after the Harris trade, the Sixers didn't have a lot of other guys, especially on the wings. The two trades they made on Thursday give them additional depth and athleticism, though it's not clear that either guy will be a net positive in the playoff rotation.
Ennis wasn't able to replace what Trevor Ariza brought (on both ends of the floor) to the Rockets and his catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage (36.2 percent) ranks just 96th among 152 players with at least 100 attempts. But he has seen a career-high mark in effective field goal percentage (59.7 percent), having basically eliminated mid-range shots (he took just one) upon his move to Houston.
Simmons, meanwhile, has had a rough season in Orlando. His effective field goal percentage of 39.7 percent is down from 51.1 percent last season and ranks dead last among 273 players with at least 200 field goal attempts. The Magic scored an anemic 98.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor (compared to 106.4 with him off the floor).
Mike Scott should get some rotation minutes as well. He was the league's second-best mid-range shooter last season (56.3 percent on 158 attempts), but has barely shot from mid-range this season, with just 28 (12 percent) of his 230 attempts coming from between the paint and the 3-point line. He has shot 41.6 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, the 23rd best mark among 152 players who have attempted at least 100 and much better than Muscala (34.9 percent).
Sixers Projected Depth Chart (two-deep)
PG: B. Simmons, McConnell
SG: Redick, J. Simmons
SF: Butler, Ennis
PF: Harris, Scott
C: Embiid, Marjanovic
Bucks add a shooter
The trade: In a three-team deal, the Bucks traded Thon Maker, Jason Smith, and four future second-round picks for Nikola Mirotic.
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Mirotic, a 6-foot-10 forward who has shot 37 percent from 3-point range over the last two seasons, appears to be a great fit for the team that ranks second in the percentage of their shots that have come from 3-point range and alongside the player -- Giannis Antetokounmpo -- who ranks second in the league in assists on 3-pointers.
Mirotic will likely come off the bench, but should play plenty of minutes alongside Antetokounmpo, who has been starting the second quarter with the Bucks' reserves. The Bucks have been playing somewhat positionless on the frontline, with Maker out of the rotation and Ersan Ilyasova playing fewer minutes of late (he played just 6:33 in the Bucks' big win in Toronto last week).
Since trading John Henson on Dec. 7, the Bucks have outscored their opponents by nine points per 100 possessions in 156 minutes with Antetokounmpo at center. That number is worse than the Bucks' overall point differential (a league-best 9.9 points per 100 possessions), but still very good. Mirotic gives them another shooter to use in those lineups.
Mirotic's catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage (38.1 percent) ranks just 68th among 152 players with at least 100 catch-and-shoot attempts, but Antetokounmpo should help him in that regard. Mirotic had a much higher effective field goal percentage on 208 shots with Anthony Davis on the floor (59.6 percent) than he did on 199 shots with Davis off the floor (50.5 percent).
Health has been an issue with Mirotic, who has missed 51 games (including the last seven with a strained calf) over the last two seasons. But the Bucks were already the best team in the Eastern Conference. They're the only team in the league that ranks in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency, their point differential (9.9 points per 100 possessions) is tops by a wide margin, and they're 5-2 against Boston (1-1), Philadelphia (1-0) and Toronto (3-1).
Bucks Projected Depth Chart (two-deep)
PG: Bledsoe, Hill
SG: Brogdon, Brown
SF: Middleton, Snell
PF: Antetokounmpo, Mirotic
C: Lopez, Ilyasova
Raptors go big, acquire Gasol
The trade: Toronto traded C.J. Miles, Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright and a 2024 second-round pick to Memphis for Marc Gasol.
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Gasol is an upgrade at center for the Raptors, offering a more diverse skill set than Valanciunas, who was just set to return from a 25-game absence (dislocated left thumb) when he was traded. Valanciunas started shooting 3-pointers last season, but Gasol was a year ahead of him in that regard and much more comfortable beyond the arc. Brook Lopez and Karl-Anthony Towns are the only centers with more 3-pointers than Gasol this season.
And Nikola Jokic is the only center with more assists. While Gasol ranks fifth among 52 centers that averaged at least 15 minutes in 25 games or more with an assist rate of 21.8 percent, Valanciunas ranks 49th, having assisted on just 7.8 percent of his possessions.
Of course, Valanciunas scores more often and more efficiently inside. Over the last three seasons, Valanciunas has shot 61 percent in the paint, where he has taken 78 percent of his shots. Over the same time, Gasol has shot just 50 percent in the paint, where he has taken 44 percent of his shots.
Gasol leads the league in elbow touches (8.7 per game) for the sixth straight season (every season for which we have Second Spectrum tracking data). As a team, the Raptors rank 24th with just 10.8 elbow touches per game and won't need to run the offense through Gasol at the high post as much as Memphis did.
Gasol will help on the other end of the floor, though. While he's not the same player that he was when he was the 2012-13 Defensive Player of the Year, he's still the guy that has been anchoring a top-10 defense this season. As bad as the Grizzlies have been overall, they ranked sixth in defensive efficiency through Wednesday and allowed just 97.6 points per 100 possessions in 945 minutes with Gasol on the floor with rookie Jaren Jackson Jr.
We'll see if Gasol plays any minutes alongside Serge Ibaka, who has been the Raptors' starting center in 42 of their 56 games and played just 29 minutes total alongside the Raptors' other centers (Valanciunas, Greg Monroe -- who was traded to Brooklyn on Thursday -- and Chris Boucher). Assuming Gasol and Ibaka play only limited minutes together, one of them will have to come off the bench.
It would have been tough to break up the current starting lineup earlier in the season. Through Dec. 3, the Raptors' starting group had outscored its opponents by 15.1 points per 100 possessions in 258 minutes. Injuries and continuity have been issues, but since then, the starting group has been outscored by 6.2 points per 100 possessions in 169 minutes, with the bigger drop-off coming on defense. So Gasol might be able to help that group get right.
The Raptors' bench is another issue. Miles and Wright were part of the Raptors' terrific, five-man bench unit from a year ago. In 340 minutes, that group outscored its opponents by 19.2 points per 100 possessions, the sixth best mark among 48 lineups that played at least 200 minutes last season. But the Raptors' bench just hasn't been the same this season. One reason is that Miles has shot just 31 percent from 3-point range and his shooting is the one reason he was in the rotation. He was 13-for-27 from beyond the arc over the last three weeks, but was still the 11th man in the rotation (behind Norman Powell) on some nights.
So with the trade, the Raptors kept the top seven guys in their rotation (their five starters, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby), got an upgrade at spot No. 8, and lost their ninth or 10th man. Like the Sixers, they will certainly look to add another piece or two in the buyout market.
Raptors Projected Depth Chart (two-deep)
PG: Lowry, VanVleet
SG: Green, McCaw
SF: Leonard, Powell
PF: Siakam, Anunoby
C: Ibaka, Gasol
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