Modest deadline moves shake up West race
While the examination of fault lines became big news in and around New York City this week, Thursday’s most vigorous NBA shaking occurred in the Western Conference.
When the dust settled out West, a modest roll call of trade-deadline maneuvers appeared to have the most potential for playoff impact.
“I know they probably feel differently in Oklahoma City, but the West looks like it could still be up for grabs,” a personnel executive employed by a Western Conference team said when asked for post-deadline input. “I think you saw more movement, albeit relatively minor, in the West because teams feel that a tweak here or there could put them in pretty good postseason position.”
That seems reasonable. It also makes sense that any seismic activity in the Eastern Conference would have to be pretty significant to dislodge the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat from prominence. For the record, the Bulls and Heat will stomp into the season’s final third with the same casts.
“A couple of teams out West look like they took a step forward today,” the personnel guy said. “I like what the (San Antonio) Spurs did, and although the (Los Angeles) Lakers got better, they didn’t get as much accomplished as maybe they were hoping.”
OK, before taking a look at those specific references, please note that Deadline ’12 will be known more for what didn’t happen than for what did.
The biggest event that failed to occur, of course, was a change of address for Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard. Howard, who’s been slouching toward his employment future with the same finesse he employs on free throws, has waived his early-termination option, meaning he’ll take the final year on his Magic contract into next season.
So we all may be treated to a similar D12 carnival next year.
Anyway, with Howard staying in Orlando for now, the immediate playoff implication suggests an Eastern Conference semifinals date for Miami. But the identity of this date could change if the Indiana Pacers, who added second-unit scoring punch by acquiring Leandro Barbosa from Toronto, can make up the 1 1/2-game difference between themselves and the Magic.
Howard was joined on the stars-staying-put list by the Lakers’ Pau Gasol, Boston Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo and loyal Phoenix Suns maestro Steve Nash.
“Sometimes the best trade is the one you don’t make,” said the personnel exec, who probably has that sentenced burned into his desk.
Well, Nash remaining in Phoenix was expected — even by out-of-town media types who almost seem appalled that he refuses to ring-chase. His continuity in the desert means the Suns will continue to have enough juice to at least chase the eighth spot in the Western Conference playoffs.
At the other end of the conference power grid we find the second-seeded Spurs, who moved disappointing three-man Richard Jefferson to the Golden State Warriors for historically high-maintenance winger Stephen Jackson. It’s hoped that Jackson, who demonstrated rare interludes of upgraded focus while playing for coach Gregg Popovich earlier in his career, can provide what the Spurs were seeking from Jefferson.
RJ gave the top-seeded Spurs 6.5 points — on 39-percent shooting — in their abbreviated playoff run last season. Jackson bounced to San Antonio after the Milwaukee Bucks sent him and serial injury sustainer Andrew Bogut to the Warriors earlier this week for gunslinger Monta Ellis, shot-blocker Ekpe Udoh and Kwame Brown’s contract.
“He’s been … well … poison in some places,” the personnel executive said of Jackson, “but (Popovich) was able to get a buy-in from him before. If that happens again, they’ll be a tough out.”
And what’s the motto regarding San Antonio?
“Don’t sleep on the Spurs,” the exec said.
Unless they’re playing the Memphis Grizzlies in a 1-against-8 playoff matchup.
Next up are the Lakers, who finally pried point guard Ramon Sessions out of Cleveland (along with run-jump wing athlete Christian Eyenga and an eventual draft choice) for shooter Jason Kapono, non-shooter Luke Walton and the top-20 protected (though 2017) first-round pick L.A. took on in exchange for sending Lamar Odom to Dallas.
Sessions, who’s received positive stat-geek reviews for his pick-and-roll success over the years, has increased his 3-point accuracy to 42 percent this season from a chilly career average of sub-30. This upgraded shooting ability may come in handy with the Lakers, because the presence of Kobe Bryant figures to limit the number of pick-and-roll opportunities Ramon might have. But with Kobe locked in as the primary ballhandler — along with Gasol and Andrew Bynum collapsing defenses in the paint — Sessions should have plenty of clean looks on the perimeter.
“They (Lakers) will be better just with him,” our personnel sharpie said of Sessions.
What the Lakers weren’t able to pull off was a reported three-team trade that was to bring talented forward Michael Beasley to L.A. from Minnesota. The T-Wolves were hoping to land combo guard Jamal Crawford from the Portland Trail Blazers in this transaction, with the Blazers receiving … well, that was the issue.
The Lakers, apparently unwilling to use their $8.9 million trade exception (more bounty from the Odom trade) and a draft pick to take on an additional luxury-cap hit, instead moved their own first-round pick and elder statesman Derek Fisher to the Houston Rockets for disappointing power forward Jordan Hill.
“Not getting Beasley, to me, is pretty big,” our insider said. “If he had come in and been focused — which might be easier to do with Kobe breathing down your neck — he could’ve really elevated the firepower off their bench, added some athleticism overall and given them versatility on the baseline.”
Instead, the Lakers have Hill.
By the way, the Rockets — tied with Dallas for the seventh seed when the deadline passed — appear to be pretty snug in their commitment to remain in the playoff field. Fisher will serve as the backup to Goran Dragic until Kyle Lowry returns from injury. In an effort to fortify their interior defense for the rest of this season, the Rockets added Marcus Camby and his expiring contract from Portland.
The Blazers, you may have noticed, pretty much waved bye-bye to their playoff chase while losing seven of their past 10 games. They made it official on Thursday, firing coach Nate McMillan, trading Gerald Wallace to the New Jersey Nets and shipping Camby to Houston.
From Jersey, the Blazers receive injured “stretch five-man” Mehmet Okur (expiring contract) and the Nets’ 2012 first-round pick (protected through the top three). The Rockets gladly coughed up two players with expiring contracts (Hasheem Thabeet and Jonny Flynn) and a second-round pick.
So, some teams fighting for the eighth seed out West strengthened their positions while some went status quo. The Rockets should be fine if Lowry comes back in good form. The sixth-seeded Denver Nuggets may slip after sending aggressively paid (but seasoned) big man Nene to the Washington Wizards in a three-team deal that brings the JaVale McGee aerial circus to the Mile High City and two-guard Nick Young — who never met a shot he didn’t take — to the L.A. Clippers.
“As it affects the West … McGee could be really good down the road for Denver,” our expert said. “But he might not be ready to help them moving forward right now. They could drop. Young certainly can provide offense for the Clippers, but we’ll see what happens late in games when the ball should be going to (Chris) Paul or (Blake) Griffin and he decides to pump up another 3. But they (Clips) have been shaky since losing (Chauncey) Billups, so I guess they thought something needed to be done.”
The Suns were sitting in a tie for 10th place with the Utah Jazz when the deadline expired and made good on their promise to not compromise this summer’s cap flexibility just to upgrade this last push for a playoff ticket. Utah has some pretty interesting assets but was unable (or maybe unwilling) to do anything. The Timberwolves, looking for backcourt assistance even before losing Ricky Rubio for the season, will have to ride Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic.
The Warriors may have hit a minor jackpot if Bogut can get and remain healthy, but they don’t appear capable of making a move this season after losing Ellis and adding Jefferson.
As for the Eastern Conference, we have the Bucks attempting a backcourt of Ellis and Brandon Jennings under the direction of Scott Skiles. Now that could be hay ride. But if nothing explodes, it also could be enough to keep Milwaukee alive in its quest for the eighth seed.
The Nets — with the dream of employing Howard not looking that promising — currently are sitting fourth in the draft-seeding chase during a year in which the field of prospects looks strong. Adding Wallace might translate to enough victories to send that pick to Portland this June.
Wallace also has a player option for next year, and his tab ($11.4 million) may be more than another team is willing to pay him. If he decides this is true and stays, the Nets might also be able to keep point guard Deron Williams, surrounding him with Wallace, Kris Humphries and Brook Lopez up front along with hotshot MarShon Brooks at shooting guard.
“I kinda like that as a starting lineup,” our personnel exec said. “But I like keeping Deron Williams back East even more.”