By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
Another NBA trade deadline has come and gone, with the Celtics standing pat. And yet, it was perhaps the most impactful deadline since 2015 – when Danny Ainge’s acquisition of Isaiah Thomas (hope you had a happy birthday, IT) kicked the rebuild into high gear. With Ainge’s pursuit of Anthony Davis hamstrung by the Rose Rule, he could only watch the Eastern Conference shift around him, as his Celtics continue to bank on a deep playoff run from current personnel.
With the Bucks, Raptors and Sixers the other favorites in the East – Indiana is predicted to fall in the wake of the Victor Oladipo injury – each made a significant move: Marc Gasol is headed to Toronto, Tobias Harris to Philly, and Nikola Mirotic to Milwaukee. Each makes their respective new team better on paper and figures to present matchup problems for Boston come springtime.
Gasol is the biggest name on the list, a three-time All-Star and former Defensive Player of the Year. Think Al Horford, just a year and a half older. Gasol continued to log 34 minutes a night in Memphis, and with his Player Efficiency Rating the lowest in almost a decade, it stands to reason he’ll be deployed differently north of the border. However, that may be to the detriment of Serge Ibaka, having one of his best statistical seasons in years opposite Jonas Valanciunas and Greg Monroe, two low-post bruisers who were both dealt Thursday.
Toronto already has their Batman in do-it-all wing Kawhi Leonard, with Kyle Lowry an adept Robin (if Robin spent entire possessions sprawled under the basket in protest of perceived missed calls), so coach Nick Nurse will look to leverage Gasol’s veteran smarts to kickstart a roster that has plateaued following a hot start.
Harris is a nice piece. He’s a solid scorer who has improved his offensive efficiency in recent seasons. He’s not a standout defensive player, but that’s not Philly’s concern, given the defensive reputations of its other core rotation pieces. The main benefit to Harris’ presence should be his ability to spread the floor for a team that, outside of J.J. Redick, lacks even above-average outside shooting. A starting five of Harris, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler and Redick makes it awfully hard for an opposing team to “hide” a defensive liability against the Sixers.
Last year, one could argue Philly wasn’t really ready for prime time when they were defeated by a team of Boston babies and backups. They’ll be headed into the 2019 playoffs with another year of seasoning and even more talent. It’s on former Process steward Brett Brown to get the most out of this group. At least GM Elton Brand trimmed the rotation for him, as the Harris trade, combined with the team’s earlier swap for Jimmy Butler, killed their depth. Brand continued his aggressive streak Thursday by dealing Markelle Fultz, giving up on the former top pick less than 18 months into his NBA career, with Jonathan Simmons was the only playable asset he received in return.
Mirotic fits the mold of Mike’s Budenholzer’s Bucks, bringing shooting and passable defense to the current top team in the conference. He’ll likely poach minutes from Ersan Ilyasova and inherit those of the departed Thon Maker, and the fact that more than half of his field goal attempts have come behind the arc makes the 6-foot-10 chucker an intriguing option next to MVP contender and apparent fantasy basketball newbie Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Davis went nowhere, with the Lakers’ biggest win on Thursday occurring at TD Garden. Other teams scrambled into position for July 1, while the media tidied their narratives and reorganized their Rolodexes in anticipation of free agency, of which Kyrie Irving will be a featured artist. A week ago, the Knicks, six years after closing the door on Boston’s most recent era of success in winning their only playoff series with Carmelo Anthony, declared their intention to ruin everything for the Celtics again by trading Kristaps Porzingis to the Mavericks and opening up an NBA-high amount of cap space to pursue free agents.
My initial reaction of disbelief that the Knicks would trade a 23-year-old All-Star, possibly their best homegrown talent since Patrick Ewing, to chase players brandishing checks (like they did in 2010, when they wound up with Amare Stoudemire and his bad knees instead of LeBron or Chris Bosh) was quickly replaced by a growing dread that an organization that has been a flaming bag of dog refuse for two decades could actually steal Boston’s best hope for a future championship in Irving and derail everything the organization has worked for the last six years.
Sure, it would take a lot of things falling into place – 2019 version of the frozen envelope netting the top pick and Zion Williamson, followed by Kevin Durant leaving the most dominant team since Shaq and Kobe to be the new Walt Frazier, strolling Fifth Avenue for some garish furs as a callback to the only title teams in franchise history, which occurred when my father was a decade-and-a-half younger than I am now but remain on the tip of every New Yorker’s tongue.
It could happen, right? I mean, a $4 billion dollar franchise couldn’t possibly stay this bad forever.
And then Irving, Ainge’s bold trade acquisition of two summers ago, who Celtics fans anointed as the next Boston superstar, will find the allure of Madison Avenue and the potential to recreate ‘Melo’s “Coming Home” campaign (he’s from Jersey) and boost Skylar Grey’s Spotify royalties absolutely irresistible, returning the Knicks to relevance and pushing the Celtics back to the pack.
Irving is reportedly frustrated with the idea that the actions of others will determine his own decisions. While this is the same independent thinker who wanted out of a Finals-ready team in Cleveland, he’s also a businessman, and it’s in his best interest to keep his options open. Fortunes can change quickly in the NBA. A few months ago, the Celtics were overwhelming favorites in the East. Today, we’re worried about Harris, Mirotic, and an over-the-hill Gasol. Boston may need Davis to get over the hump. Conversely, they may embark on another inspiring run this spring, with Irving’s supporting cast exceeding our wildest expectations.
In the meantime, the Celtics will likely sniff around the buyout market to see if they can land a helpful veteran, perhaps that 15-year vet Irving alluded to earlier in the campaign. From there, it’s all on this collection of talent. But with the rest of the East improving on Thursday, their task just grew a little taller.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.