The NBA trade deadline felt like most others, no seismic, life-altering moves from one team to another that shake up an entire league.
No Rasheed Wallace detouring through Magic City on the way to Detroit in 2004, no Pau Gasol being given his freedom papers (albeit before the deadline) from Memphis to give Kobe Bryant some needed help on the way to the NBA Finals.
But even though no one made a singular move to be feared, the transactions illustrated there’s no fear of the contenders at the top of the respective conferences.
How teams are preparing for the Lakers
The Denver Nuggets seem like they’re ramping up for a matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers. Not just with the mere addition of Aaron Gordon and to a lesser degree, JaVale McGee, but they’re planning ahead for the day the Lakers acquire someone from the buyout market to fortify their roster.
The Nuggets are prepping for a versatile battle with the Lakers, should it happen, wanting to play and perhaps beat the champs in multiple ways as opposed to bludgeoning them with a one-way unleashing of Nikola Jokic.
You don’t make a move like that if you don’t fully believe you’re good enough — not just that the injured Lakers are vulnerable. Gordon is known as a dunker who hasn’t turned into a franchise player, but he seems more suited for the West with his versatility, body and skill set.
And he’s never been with true playmakers to make the game easier for him, as he should be able to feast following all the attention devoted to Jokic and Jamal Murray.
The Clippers are banking on getting the best of Rajon Rondo in the next few months, that his savvy, corporate knowledge and general orneriness with his own teammates will lead to some desperate play.
The Clippers didn’t have the flexibility to make a life-changing move, but they didn’t sit on their hands. And we all know they’re desperate.
There’s respect for the Lakers, and likely admiration for the Brooklyn Nets, but perhaps teams are seizing a unique opportunity in what’s a most unique pandemic-drenched season.
The word “indefinite” has been sticking out for the past week, not just for LeBron James’ right ankle-induced absence, but the time he’s spent at the top of NBA mountain. When healthy, his teams have been contenders since the days he turned into a full adult.
He’s M. Bison. He’s King Koopa.
Stalling him out while holding back all your resources into winning is a fool’s errand, and best believe, some cowardly franchises did the math in previous years, refusing to go all-in.
Perhaps it would’ve played out this way as Denver hadn’t replaced the versatile Jerami Grant after his free-agency defection to Detroit, and the Los Angeles Clippers have always been in need of structure and order at point guard. But knowing this injury isn’t just something James will shake off, that he’s human and not indestructible, gave some teams the liquid courage they needed to make a move.
A diminished champion adds even more hope to challengers
Nobody got drunk, eschewing picks or future assets to win this championship, but things certainly felt a little bolder on Thursday. There was some rearranging of deck chairs, like Portland trading for Norman Powell and giving up Gary Trent Jr. in a move that doesn’t drastically alter the Trail Blazers’ prospects, but that wasn’t the general tone of the day.
As much as we look at the recent Golden State Warriors’ run with Kevin Durant as a foregone conclusion, it didn’t stop teams from competing. In fact, it made teams definitively choose a lane, ending false charades and lip service with many folding their hands and going to rebuild. The Houston Rockets choked away a Game 7 at home in 2018, but they were in position to pull off the upset because Daryl Morey had enough fortitude to challenge a dynasty.
Toronto kept trying different combinations with personnel, refusing to accept losing to James and even firing Coach of the Year Dwane Casey for failing to beat him. But twisting that Rubik’s Cube paid off when an opportunity to acquire a disgruntled Kawhi Leonard from San Antonio led to a Raptors championship, and everything that’s occurred since counts as gravy.
Scared money don’t make money.
And while a healthy LeBron and Anthony Davis is downright scary for the league, you don’t get the sense that this is a dynastic, unstoppable team at full strength. A diminished, doubting champion adds even more hope to challengers, making for better competition if all goes well.
But the league’s landscape looks more wide open than before, more reasonable outcomes someone can accept if eyes were closed tonight, and he or she woke up in July and heard Brooklyn, Miami, Milwaukee or Philadelphia made the NBA Finals.
Or that the Clippers or Nuggets came out of the West.
“I would say in the West, for sure. you pretty much know who the favorites are,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said. “I don't think that's changed. In the East, I think it goes deeper, you know, there's a lot of good teams that have a chance. I would say in the West is the same, in the East it’s more.”
Of course, smart money says Brooklyn’s star power is the best bet in the East and, of course, the Lakers out West, but there’s no sense of fear from their closest competitors.
Miami shrewdly refused to play Raptors president Masai Ujiri’s game on Kyle Lowry, with Pat Riley having Victor Oladipo in his back pocket this entire time. The old man is immortalized in books and NBA lore, old enough to play with the late Elgin Baylor but modern enough to coach Dwyane Wade, yet still wants another shot at the Lakers. Another dance with LeBron.
Riley's team dropped below .500 with a loss to Portland on Thursday, missing several key players — but you can’t tell him he doesn’t have a shot to get through the maze in the East, and you’re damn sure not gonna hear he’s afraid of the unproven Nets.
Pick a year, any year in modern NBA history.
No matter who wound up becoming champions, there’s a handful of teams with real shots at winning. A break here or there, an injury or a team finding itself at the right time creating history.
Maybe four teams, max.
In most cases, it seems like a fait accompli in hindsight but the crossroads are far more tenuous than we’d like to remember.
As an organization, the responsibility from the top is to put as many chess pieces on your side as possible, to plan for every conceivable scenario and hope you can deal when adversity comes. It’s likely the subtleties — the contingency plans that will result in series wins — were planted today.
Because all the pieces matter.
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