Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge, affectionately called “Trader Danny”, stayed quiet during yesterday’s NBA trade deadline. Although Boston has underperformed thus far this year despite expectations of a 60 plus win season, they’ve won nine of their last ten games and appear to be hitting their stride at an ideal time.
Part of the lack of activity during the deadline stems from Ainge’s confidence in the roster as currently constructed. After all, the Celtics are definitely one of the best teams in the association.
But as some Celtics fans impatiently refresh Woj and Shams’ tweet yesterday, begging for Boston to bolster its roster, they must keep in mind that maybe other teams want to steer clear of doing business with Ainge.
After brutally fleecing the Philadelphia 76ers, the Brooklyn Nets, and the Cleveland Cavaliers in their most recent blockbuster deals, he’s become an extremely feared front-office force.
Having said that, Ainge and the Celtics may need to be a little more concerned this season, as other Eastern conference contenders in Milwaukee, Toronto, and Philadelphia all made improvements to their roster this week.
I’m not going to bet against head coach Brad Stevens leading this Celtics roster — assuming Kyrie Irving is healthy come playoff time — but these moves will certainly challenge Boston for the Eastern Conference crown. Let’s dissect what stands in front of them.
The Milwaukee Bucks have the best player in the Eastern Conference, plus a legitimate MVP candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo. The “Greek Freak” entered his sixth NBA season with the first formidable head coach he’s had so far in Mike Budenholzer.
Hiring Budenholzer has paid off for the Bucks thus far; they’re currently sitting atop the Eastern Conference at 40-13. And they just gave their offense another weapon in sniper Nikola Mirotic, who they traded Stanley Johnson and Jason Smith for yesterday.
With a player like the Greek Freak who’s so unstoppable when attacking the basket, a floor spacer like Mirotic should scare opposing teams moving forward.
Prior to acquiring Mirotic, the only Milwaukee players you were forced to respect from the perimeter was first-time all-star selection Khris Middleton, and rotational players Ersan Ilyasova and rookie Donte DiVincenzo. Middleton and Giannis will both really benefit from Mirotic’s presence, since he’ll give them a lot more room to operate.
Let’s head up north where the Toronto Raptors gave their front court an upgrade, flipping Jonas Valanciunas, CJ Miles, and Delon Wright for savvy veteran center and former Memphis Grizzly Marc Gasol. Gasol is on the back nine of his career at age 34, but he can still provide the Raps with an element that they haven’t had in some time.
Gasol is a far more skilled scorer and passer than Valanciunas, averaging just under 16 points and five assists for this season. He shoots particularly well from the free-throw line at 75%, which is an area that hurt Toronto when they got swept by Cleveland in last year’s playoffs. Along with his unique offensive skill set, for a 7’1 guy weighing 255 pounds Gasol can defend at a pretty high level. This is crucial for Toronto, considering they may run into the best big man in the NBA, Joel Embiid, if they come up against the 76ers later in the playoffs..
Speaking of those 76ers, let’s give them props today. Elton Brand was the most active general manager during the trade deadline frenzy this week. He kicked things off by giving his team a seriously dangerous top four by adding Tobias Harris.
Harris is a great offensive player. He’s entering his prime at age 26, averaging 21 points a game as the number one option for the Los Angeles Clippers. The west is loaded with star players but you can make the argument he should’ve been an all-star selection this season.
Similar to the Bucks, Philly is also a team that has struggled because of a lack of outside shooting. Harris will help that cause, as he’s shooting 43% from outside the arc this season. Harris, Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Jimmy Butler will all take time to gel. And one of the four will have to sacrifice shots; I would guess that will be Simmons. That shouldn’t be a long-term problem Simmons who loves to distribute the rock, but it’s an adjustment for a mostly young core.
The 76ers made more noise right before the 3 pm deadline by trading second-year guard and former first overall 2017 draft pick Markelle Fultz. Fultz’s shoulder issues and shattered confidence because of it have kept him from living up to the hype in Philadelphia.
Down the road Fultz may become an outstanding player, but for short-term title-contention purposes, trading him made all the sense in the world for Philadelphia. They sent him to the Magic for strong, athletic guard Jonathan Simmons and future draft picks. Those picks will also be useful down the road, considering the Magic’s dysfunction.
The Sixers added some depth, toughness, and shooting in these moves. This is important for a team that was right there and certainly good enough to beat the Celtics in the second round last year. They’re just extremely young, made self-inflicted wounds, and didn’t appear ready for the moment at all.
Will this year be different for the 76ers or the other two teams I just mentioned? I think it would be stupid to bet against the loaded Celtics roster that was minutes away from appearing in the NBA Finals, even without its best player in Irving, and all-star forward Gordon Hayward.
There’s still something to be desired from Boston. The team’s been inconsistent and suffered head-scratching losses to lesser teams all year. Come playoff time, though, I expect them to kick it into that gear we saw last spring and simply have more than enough ways to attack opposing teams.
One thing’s for sure: with the moves other Eastern Conference teams have made, we’re in for a fun playoff race in a few months.