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Six Pressing Eastern Conference Questions

The Ibaka trade and Love injury have knocked the East off its axis

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The Eastern Conference snow globe has been shaken. Kevin Love is out for six weeks, Toronto made a power move in acquiring Serge Ibaka, the Celtics are just 2.5 games back from the top spot, the Wizards are one of the best teams in basketball, and the Hawks are still lurking.

The East suddenly looks more open than anyone could’ve predicted at the beginning of the season. Here are some pressing questions about the conference.

What Happens When the King Rests?

LeBron James was asked Tuesday if he needs to step up with Kevin Love sidelined for six weeks after undergoing knee surgery. “I’ve never stepped down,” James said, later adding: “As long as I’m in the lineup, we’ve got a chance.”

The Cavs have struggled without LeBron and Love, getting outscored by 20.5 points per 100 possessions this season when Kyrie Irving is the sole star on the court. There will be more instances of that over the next six weeks — possibly longer if Love is slow to recover or suffers a setback (this is not Love’s first left-knee injury). James averages 37.6 minutes per game (second most in the NBA) and Irving plays 35.2 minutes. We’re in friggin’ February. James and Irving should be doing less, not more. No one plays more than 34.2 minutes per game on the Warriors, while the man who’s been to six straight NBA Finals is nearly leading the damn league in minutes.

There’s not a lot more that LeBron can, or should, be asked to do. That means the door is open for other teams to make a push for the 1-seed in the Eastern Conference. Maybe the top spot won’t matter to a (potentially) healthy Cavaliers roster, but don’t tell that to other contenders.

Are the Raptors Still Conference Contenders?

The Raptors badly needed Serge Ibaka. Consider this: When Kyle Lowry shares the floor with Patrick Patterson, Toronto outscores teams by an amazing 18.9 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. Take Patterson off and that number dips to a middling 0.9. Patterson isn’t a marquee name, but it’s only because the things that he does well — shoot and defend — don’t always manifest into counting stats.

Now they have a better version of Patterson in Ibaka, who can space the floor, play small-ball 5, and defend the perimeter. With Ibaka and Patterson, Dwane Casey won’t even have to think about turning to Jared Sullinger (who looks ready for a career in Europe) or any of his younger, less reliable bigs in lineups next to Jonas Valanciunas. Ibaka’s shooting ability (38.8 percent from 3) will open driving lanes for Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, two of the best half-court playmakers in the NBA this season.

That friendly duo is why the Raptors are still contenders. They might be just 10–16 since December 27, but over that time they have outscored teams by 15.1 points per 100 possessions with Lowry, DeRozan, and Patterson sharing the floor. The problem is availability. Since late December, that trio has played only four games together, with DeRozan missing contests due to an ankle injury and Patterson out for the past three games with a knee injury.

Don’t let their lull fool you. If the Raptors are healthy, they’re still the second- or third-best team in the East and they have the weapons to go toe-to-toe with the Cavaliers.

Should the Bulls and Pacers Hit Reset?

The Bulls and Pacers are stumbling into the All-Star break. Chicago and Indiana are a combined 1–7 since last Wednesday, and the schedule only gets harder: The Pacers play in Cleveland on Wednesday and host Washington on Thursday, while the Bulls face Boston and Phoenix. The two teams could realistically enter the break an abysmal 1–11.

Both Jimmy Butler and Paul George have expressed disgust over their respective team’s play this season. George said in December, “It’s been one of the most frustrating seasons I’ve been a part of,” while Butler said, “I want to play with guys that care.”

Both the Bulls and Pacers are on the clock before their star players hit the market, and neither team has much young talent or many assets to entice them to stay. Other than Myles Turner, there’s not a young player on either club viewed as a building block. George doesn’t hit free agency until 2018 and Butler doesn’t until 2019, but Indy and Chicago aren’t close to being on a championship level. Their rosters need to be overhauled, not tweaked.

If a surprise market develops for George or Butler, the Celtics are an obvious player. What about other teams? In the East, I’m curious about the Sixers’ plan under Bryan Colangelo.

Out West, the Nuggets, Suns, and Lakers have a bundle of picks and players that could allow the Bulls or Pacers to jump-start a rebuild. If Magic Johnson is hired as general manager (he’s clearly angling for the job), I’d look to take advantage of the inexperienced GM. Imagine Pacers general manager Larry Bird calling up old friend Magic, floating the idea of a George-for-everything trade. George grew up in California idolizing Kobe Bryant and called the Lakers “a family-favorite team.” He’s also one of Magic’s favorites:

Trading superstars isn’t easy. It’s painful for fan bases, and the deals often turn out to be the wrong decision. But being proactive can beat being reactive. A star demanding a trade (like Vince Carter wanting out of Toronto) or walking in free agency can devastate a franchise. If the Bulls or Pacers have ever thought about trading Butler or George, now might be the time.

Should the Celtics Cash in Their Assets?

The Raptors loaded up, and now the ball is in Danny Ainge’s court. The Celtics are winners of 23 of their past 30 games, but they still have a flawed roster. You’ll read about how they need a rebounder and a rim protector, which is true, but they’re missing something else: a scoring partner for Isaiah Thomas. Boston has the third-best half-court scoring offense, per Synergy, but defenses will overload on Thomas in the playoffs, stick their best defender on him, and force someone else to try to make a play.

The Celtics have a chest full of assets, but in-their-prime superstars like Butler and George likely won’t be available (and even if they were, it’d require probably both Nets picks and much more). Buying used can be better than buying new: The pre-owned option is Carmelo Anthony, whose price would likely be low since destinations are sparse. As a go-to scorer in his own right and a 45.6 percent shooter off the catch, per SportVU, Melo would alleviate pressure on Thomas. Above all else, when paired with Thomas, Melo is a puzzle piece for one of the deadliest plays in basketball.

When LeBron sets a screen for Irving, it puts the defense in an impossible position. If the defense switches, LeBron will pummel the tiny defender or Irving will blow by the forward. Boston needs this nightmare matchup proposition. A Thomas-Anthony pick-and-roll could give the Celtics a devastating attack when the game slows down in the fourth quarter. Thomas might be the King in the Fourth, but not even King James can do it all himself.

Will Other Teams Make Deals?

A Jahlil Okafor trade appeared imminent this weekend: The Sixers left Okafor in Philadelphia when they traveled to Charlotte, and head coach Brett Brown admitted they did it because the former Duke star was involved in trade conversations. HoopsHype’s Alex Kennedy reported those talks were with the Pelicans, Bulls, Blazers, and Nuggets. “Jahlil Okafor’s situation is transparent,” Brown said Monday. “He’s in the middle of being discussed in trade scenarios.”

Except it’s not so transparent. It’s not even trade scenarios. It’s a trade scenario that involves the Pelicans. Nothing has really changed since nine days ago, when The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported the Pelicans were “engaged on several fronts to land a center,” including Okafor. Woj reported the Pelicans want to include a large salary (likely Alexis Ajinca), but the Sixers don’t want to take that on, which a source confirmed to me. Those negotiations are stuck in gridlock. The shelving of Okafor was likely meant to flush out the best offers around the league, sources speculate. It’s not uncommon for teams to use leaks to stir interest. The Nuggets and Blazers weren’t pursuing Okafor. The Bulls likely aren’t either. No one is buying what Bryan Colangelo is selling: a one-dimensional center who can’t defend, rebound, or pass on a roster loaded with big men.

Should the Wizards Make a Push?

The Wizards were 6–12 on December 4. Since then, they’re 27–9 with the fourth-best net rating in the NBA. John Wall is playing at an All-NBA level. Bradley Beal deserves All-Star consideration to replace Love’s vacant spot. Otto Porter is still shooting like Kyle Korver. Scott Brooks looks like a coaching virtuoso. The Wizards are for real, and they should make a push.

They need bench help, particularly in the backcourt for the instances Wall and/or Beal are off the court. At that spot, I’d target Lakers point guard Lou Williams or Nuggets guard Will Barton, in whom the Wizards reportedly expressed interest. Bulls forward Taj Gibson was reportedly discussed in trade conversations with the Raptors, and he’d bolster Washington’s frontcourt. The Wizards own all their future first-rounders, so they’re armed with assets valuable enough to land a veteran helper.

Wait … Are the Cavaliers Done Adding Pieces?

The Cavaliers freed up cap space and opened a roster spot by trading Chris Andersen to the Hornets on Monday. What will they do with that open roster spot (and the $4.8 million traded player exception they can use to absorb a contract)? James made himself clear: Cavaliers general manager David Griffin needs to add a playmaker. James and Irving handle the ball most of the time, but they need a shot of offensive creativity to pave the way to the Finals.

That was Matthew Dellavedova’s role last year: Delly averaged 24.6 minutes during the regular season, then in the playoffs, his minutes dropped in each round (from 18.1 per game in the first round to 7.6 in the Finals). The Cavs are taking applications, but options are limited. Denver point guard Jameer Nelson seemed perfect, but the Nuggets are currently in the playoff hunt and Nelson has been integral to their modest success. There aren’t many other viable options with salaries that can squeeze into Cleveland’s $4.8 million exception. Do Aaron Brooks, Devin Harris, or C.J. Watson really move the needle?

Any playmaker with a higher price tag would likely cost a key Cavs rotation player like Iman Shumpert or Channing Frye. That means the best hope for Cleveland is to pluck the best available option after the trade deadline. Maybe that ends up being one of the players they worked out last month (hello, Mario, my old friend!) or hoping a veteran like Deron Williams or Rajon Rondo is waived.

All stats current through Tuesday morning.