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The Lakers’ Risky Trade Business, and the Five Most Interesting Teams of the Week

Plus: New Orleans is at the center of the basketball universe, Houston is figuring out where its other superstar fits in, and more intrigue from around the league

Earlier this week, I told my colleagues that I was grateful for the onset of Anthony Davis trade talk, because “all the Dennis Smith Jr. and Carmelo Anthony shit was like we were trying to get high by licking batteries, and then someone came in with dozens of tabs of acid.” And then, on Thursday, we went from “In meeting with management today, Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis expressed his concern with the … franchise direction” to “Dallas is finalizing a deal to land Kristaps Porzingis”—for a package including Smith, no less!—in under two hours.

I guess what I’m trying to say is: The acid is too strong. We got a bad batch, you guys. Nobody take any more of the acid.

While I, who am now a large glass of orange juice, try to avoid tipping myself over as I check into the chillout tent, let’s take a look at the five most interesting teams in the league for Week 16, starting with a moment of truth in Los Angeles …

Los Angeles Lakers

For decades, the Lakers seemed to operate under a different set of rules than other franchises, immune from competitive ebbs and flows thanks to their gift for securing superstar after superstar. That notion, which Tom Ziller of SB Nation delightfully termed “Lakers exceptionalism,” came crashing down earlier this decade for a variety of reasons. When LeBron James came to Los Angeles, though, the good old days seemed poised to come with him—thanks in part to who else he could draw.

The signs have long pointed toward the Lakers locking down a Klutch Sports–brokered deal to land Anthony Davis in L.A. alongside James. And after the smoke from Monday’s mammoth #WojBomb cleared, the Lakers indeed appeared to be in the driver’s seat to import another league-shifting talent. But despite James’s arrival and the rumors of Davis’s preference for landing alongside him, maybe the Lakers are still just passengers, with their search for a second superstar still dictated by forces they can’t control.

After a month of watching the young Lakers scuffle as he sat with a long-lingering groin strain, James returned on Thursday against the Clippers. But even after besting their Staples Center cotenants in overtime, the Lakers still sit one game back for the West’s eighth and final playoff spot. It’s clear that LeBron and the Lakers need more firepower. But if the Pelicans decide not to give it to them … well, then, how are they going to get it?

“For the Lakers, it’s time to strike now,” Yahoo’s Chris Haynes wrote on Monday. “It’s becoming more and more apparent that acquiring a top-tier free agent in the summer might be too complicated.”

The chatter that other stars would rather run their own shops than become a role player next to LeBron has grown louder and louder this season. This summer’s top free agents already own championship rings, and might have loftier personal goals than playing second fiddle to a made man, getting none of the credit when you win, and shouldering all the blame when you lose.

If Kevin Durant wants to leave a dynasty, he can go to the Clippers or the Knicks. If Kawhi Leonard decides he’s had enough Canadian cold, he can come to the Clips, too. The 76ers traded for Jimmy Butler with intentions of re-signing him. Klay Thompson’s eyes won’t have any reason to wander if Golden State offers him the max in free agency. Michael Jordan sounds ready to back up the Brink’s truck to keep Kemba Walker in Charlotte.

The wild card in all this: Kyrie Irving. His bridge-building apology sent some very active imaginations into overdrive, and just how committed he remains to his preseason pledge to re-sign in Boston seems to depend on who you’re talking to. If Irving does stay with the Celtics, though—or perhaps decides to run a two-man game with AD elsewhere—then the superstar-hunting Lakers might be out of options that meaningfully move the needle.

New Orleans Pelicans v Los Angeles Lakers
Anthony Davis and LeBron James
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Lakers’ bargaining position gets stronger if Davis, as he’s expected to, makes it clear that they’re the only team he’s interested in re-signing with when he can hit free agency in 2020. That could depress other suitors’ offers, perhaps making the Pelicans more likely to view L.A.’s best offer as the best offer they can get.

It might not, though. It sure doesn’t sound like New Orleans brass is all that eager to play ball with the Lakers, and if this stretches past the deadline, teams confident enough in their leadership, competitive core, and organizational culture to make the same bet on themselves that the Thunder did with Paul George and the Raptors did with Leonard—like, say, the Celtics—will try their damnedest to get an audience. Hence the expectation that the Lakers “will be aggressive in pushing for a deal now,” as our Kevin O’Connor wrote.

Maybe losing out on Davis wouldn’t be an out-and-out catastrophe; after all, they do still have LeBron. But this brave new era was predicated on restoring a once-proud franchise to prominence by adding multiple superstars over the course of two summers. A Davis trade might be Magic Johnson’s best, and last, shot at landing a second big fish before entering the back half of LeBron’s deal and making good on the promise Magic made this past offseason. No pressure, guys.

The Most Trade-Deadline-Relevant Team of the Week: New Orleans Pelicans

While the Davis saga understandably takes top billing in New Orleans, that’s not the only business the Pelicans have to tend to before Thursday’s deadline. General manager Dell Demps, or whoever will make the final call, has to decide what the sunniest version of life after AD might look like, and which other moves the Pels could make to help ensure they see it.

Jrue Holiday is a dynamic two-way guard who can play on or off the ball and make life miserable on an opponent’s top scoring threat—the kind of backcourt contributor that every playoff team could use. But he’s also on the books for $52.7 million over the next two seasons, with a $26.3 million player option for 2021-22, making him a tricky piece for a contender to fit into its financial framework on short notice. He’s also the kind of player the Pelicans might want to retain as a focal point to remain competitive in the short term, so he’s probably off the table.

That doesn’t mean New Orleans won’t deal, though. ESPN reports that Demps has made three key rotation players—forwards Nikola Mirotic and Julius Randle, and guard E’Twaun Moore—available in trade talks, perhaps with an eye toward “recover[ing] draft picks as part of a more complete post-Davis rebuild.”

Mirotic’s contract expires after the season, and while he has battled multiple injuries (most recently a right calf strain), he’s a legitimate shooter who can also help on the defensive glass and defend across frontcourt positions. He’d make a ton of sense for teams that could use some extra stretch at the 4 spot, like Philadelphia, Utah, or Oklahoma City. Randle has a $9.1 million player option for next season, so like Mirotic, he might only be a several-month rental. But that still might be worth something to a team that could benefit from adding a grab-and-go scorer who can pound the glass and bully second-unit defenses—say, the Trail Blazers? Moore is owed a manageable $8.7 million for next season; teams that strike out looking for a game-breaker on the wing could do a lot worse than a steady vet who can guard 2s and 3s, and has resumed shooting it well after a cold December. (He’d instantly be the best guard on the Pistons.)

If the Pelicans can land anything of future value for those veterans, they should strike while the iron is hot. Load up on whatever picks are available, turn the rest of the season over to the surprisingly fun ramshackle crew that beat the Rockets and pushed the Nuggets—shouts out to Jahlil Okafor and Kenrich Williams!—and brace for impact. The post-AD future is coming. Might as well stock up on canned goods while you can.

Houston Rockets

In some respects, James Harden’s paradigm-shifting run of individual excellence turned Houston’s clock back. It reminded us what sort of havoc Harden can wreak all by himself, and how naturally the rest of the Rockets fall into orbit around their hirsute sun. It also left an enduring image of how much better Houston has been recently without Chris Paul (12-5, outscoring opponents by 3.2 points per 100 possessions) than it had been with him in the season’s first two months (16-15, only plus-0.5 points-per-100).

That resurfaced an old doubt: How effectively would the Rockets be able to reintegrate Paul into their flow? Yes, the two point guards shared the ball beautifully last season. But after Harden just did absolutely all of that, could they really just go back to the way things were?

The early returns have been inconclusive, but Harden’s usage has dropped with Paul back. The reigning MVP has finished 34 percent of Houston’s offensive possessions with a field goal attempt, foul drawn, or turnover committed when he’s shared the floor with Paul over the past couple of games—still a very large number, but well below the preposterous 43.7 percent usage rate he rolled up while Paul was in street clothes. And he hasn’t been doing it all by himself nearly as much. One-third of Harden’s field goals over the past two games have been assisted, more than four times as many as while Paul was out.

Houston Rockets v Washington Wizards
James Harden and Chris Paul
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

But after averaging 39 minutes per game without Paul, Harden’s minutes load in CP3’s first two games back plummeted to … 38.3 minutes a night, with about two more touches per game than he averaged during Paul’s recovery. Those numbers will likely trend down as Paul gets his legs back under him. That might take a while, though: Paul will play under a minutes restriction of roughly 25 minutes a game for “the next couple weeks.”

Paul’s presence might not augur a steep drop in Harden’s floor time, but it does offer hope that Houston will be better equipped to stay afloat when he takes a breather. The Rockets have stayed above water in the minutes Paul has played without Harden since coming back, even with the nine-time All-Star still knocking the rust off.

The touch, understandably, also isn’t all the way back yet. Paul went 3-for-10 from 3-point land in his first two games, front-rimming a couple of pull-up jumpers and even air-balling a fadeaway out of the post. But as Paul told reporters after his return game against Orlando, “Rhythm isn’t always scoring.” He’s quickly regained his comfort on the ball, dishing 15 assists and just five turnovers.

He could have had more helpers, too, with a little more help from his friends. Paul logged 32 potential assists against Orlando and New Orleans, only to be undone by some good looks coming up short:

Paul clearly already has chemistry with the recently signed Kenneth Faried in the two-man game:

Paul’s size will always be something of a defensive issue; he had a tough time when matched up against the bigger Jrue Holiday in Tuesday’s loss to the Pelicans. But he’s seemed to hit the ground running on that end, making sharp rotations, fighting through screens to stay with shooters, holding his own against opponents in the paint, and getting his hands in the passing lanes to notch steals and seven deflections. The Rockets won’t be their best defensive selves until Clint Capela comes back from right thumb surgery, but if Paul can be a stabilizer while also showing more frequent flashes of offensive flair …

… Houston might soon be a lot closer to having more ways to win than, “Hey, James, go score 45 points.”

The Most Buyout-Market-Relevant Team of the Week: New York Knicks

Once the clock strikes 3 p.m. ET on Thursday, NBA executives will shift their focus from making trades to searching for players and teams who, for one reason or another, feel like it’s time to part ways. After concluding one stunning and sudden breakup on Thursday, the Knicks might soon be in the market for a couple more.

Front-office gesturing toward the value of veteran mentorship aside, there’s no real reason for the Knicks to hold on to Wesley Matthews or DeAndre Jordan once they’ve made their way north from Dallas. Their value to New York begins and ends with their contracts, which expire at the end of this season, creating the cap space that will allow the Knicks to try to sign a constellation in free agency. And there’s no real reason for two established veterans like Matthews and Jordan to stick around in Manhattan to lose boatloads of games, which is all they’d be signing up for; you can’t be neutral on a moving tank.

Whether or not the ex-Mavs have discussed buyouts with the Knicks, they’d likely find markets for their services if they were to clear waivers before March 1. Matthews has never been quite the same since rupturing his left Achilles tendon late in the 2014-15 season, but he’s drilling 40.6 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-pointers this season, has the size to defend big wings, and doesn’t need to see the ball much to be effective; he’d be a perfect low-usage, 3-and-D addition for teams like the Sixers, Rockets, or even Warriors. Jordan’s a bit of a trickier fit—defense-first big men who hit age 30 and suddenly move in space like they’re wearing Air Cinderblock II PEs aren’t the most valuable players these days—but his postseason experience, stiff screen-setting, and threat as a pick-and-roll lob target could earn him a look from a team in need of another body in the middle. (Golden State might make sense there, too.)

For teams with limited cap flexibility and few expendable trade assets, the buyout market is often the best way to bolster their rosters before the postseason. For teams with no shot of reaching the postseason, and with potentially viable veterans in roster spots that could be used to cycle through G League guys in search of a diamond in the rough, it can be the best way to wring a little extra value out of someone who’s not in the long-term plans. Before fully turning their attention to the grand plan they’re going to try to execute this summer, the Knicks should stay open for business through the end of February, redirecting Matthews, Jordan … and any other dudes who might be better served finishing this season elsewhere.

Toronto Raptors

From 10,000 feet, everything looks great in Toronto. The Raptors have ranked at or near the top of the Eastern Conference all season, and they entered Thursday’s nationally televised matchup with the Bucks having won 11 of their previous 15 games. They sit sixth in the NBA in net rating, joining Milwaukee, Denver, and Boston as the only teams in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

The Raptors’ roster and résumé seem to mark them as a clear contender. But while Toronto isn’t a full-on Monet upon closer inspection, the process does look a bit dicier than the results.

Since blitzing their way to a 20-4 start, the Raptors have been closer to average than awe-inspiring, ranking 16th in points scored per possession and 14th in net rating. They’ve had a hard time getting stops, slotting 17th in points allowed per possession in January. They’ve squeaked out nail-biters against the Hawks, Wizards, Suns, and Mavericks, and dropped a winnable game in Indiana after the Pacers lost Victor Oladipo for the season.

Because of an injury to Kyle Lowry and the ongoing “load management” approach to limiting Kawhi Leonard’s minutes, Toronto’s preferred starting lineup has made only five appearances over the past month; when it’s seen the floor, it’s been outscored. That’s bad news for a team whose vaunted depth has been more hit-or-miss than we anticipated at the start of the season.

Lowry, in particular, is a somewhat worrisome case. Toronto is 30-12 with him in the lineup and 7-4 without him; among Raptors, only Danny Green has better on/off splits than Lowry, and the newly minted All-Star reserve is responsible for a lot more on offense than the role-playing Green. But Lowry has looked diminished as he battles back pain that required anti-inflammatory injections; he’s shooting just 34.8 percent from the field and 30.6 percent from 3-point range since returning to the lineup three weeks ago.

When Lowry isn’t putting pressure on defenses with his pick-and-roll probing, off-ball activity, and ever-present threat to shoot off motion, Toronto’s offense loses its punch. When he’s not hectoring opposing ball handlers, disrupting passing lanes, fighting for loose balls, and vying for contested rebounds, the Raptors defense loses its snarl. Leonard is the Raptors’ best player, but Lowry’s still arguably their most important player; with Fred VanVleet looking more like a piece to supplement Lowry than supplant him this season, they need him right to reach their peak.

Honestly, they might need more than that. The Bucks, who slapped the Raptors on Thursday to win the season series against Toronto, show no signs of slowing down. The 76ers, forever churning though they may be, seem like they’re figuring some things out as they get ready for their first postseason with Jimmy Butler. The Celtics have won seven of eight, with their lone loss a hard-fought four-point defeat at the hands of the rampaging Warriors. Getting back center Jonas Valanciunas, who’s finally nearing a return after a month and a half on the shelf following thumb surgery, should help Toronto. But the Lithuanian bruiser alone isn’t enough to shore up a roster built to win now that’s starting to spring leaks in point prevention, playmaking, and viable secondary scoring behind Leonard, when he’s available.

The Raptors might be on their way to the best record in franchise history again, but a sober assessment might lead president Masai Ujiri to think his team needs another big swing before Thursday’s deadline. Wonder whether we can come up with any bold moves for him to make.