Chris Ryan: We are through our first weekend of basketball after the boom. We just experienced a different kind of trade deadline—one where by the end of it, it seemed totally normal that so many All-Star-caliber players (Kristaps Porzingis, Tobias Harris, Marc Gasol) switched teams. The only thing surprising was that more of them didn’t move. You and I have been talking about how the NBA transaction economy affects the on-court product for the past couple of weeks, and this weekend was a fascinating illustration. Forget what it does to the circadian rhythms of bloggers: The NBA trade deadline seemed to take a toll on everyone. Kevin Durant ripped into the assembled media Thursday night; LeBron and the Lakers are 1-2 on their decidedly Brow-less road trip—giving up 407 points in three games, including getting worked by an Oladipo-less Indy and a resplendent Philly, and squeaking out a freak win over Boston. Speaking of Boston: Kyrie Irving’s hurt, the Celtics were on the wrong side of a historic comeback against a group of Clippers who barely know one another, and Marcus Morris says no one is having fun. You know any good hangover cures? I think everyone in the league—from players, to execs, to agents, to coaches—could use one right now.
Justin Verrier: The theater of the absurd that engulfed the Anthony Davis derby shrouded a sobering reality: All the teams involved needed a deal to happen, because they were all kind of a mess. With the hope of a deadline shakeup now gone, each is coming to terms with the challenges of their predicament. Rajon Rondo’s game-winner in Boston on deadline night was fun, but the Lakers went right back to looking like a team that didn’t have enough shooting, or top-level talent, to trade blows with the Sixers. The Pelicans popped Davis back into the lineup, to the bewilderment of their home crowd and Jeff Van Gundy and pretty much everyone watching, and are still trying to make sense of it; they somehow beat the Timberwolves on Friday, with Davis going off for 32 points and holding a good-natured Q&A with the media afterward, for the team to score only 90 the next night in a loss to the Zombie Grizzlies. Even the Celtics, who could only hold their breath that the deadline would pass without a Davis deal, now have to face the fact that even the league’s third-best net rating won’t solve the long-simmering problems in the locker room. The only team that’s seemingly better off is the Knicks, because there’s only one place to go when you have 10 wins in mid-February. Them and the Sixers, that is.
Ryan: Let’s get the Philly stuff out of the way. I’m keeping my enthusiasm at, like, British-guy-trying-ecstasy-at-a-1989–Happy Mondays–concert levels. Allowing for the fact all the changing places and faces across the league has created a decidedly “open run” feel to the past few days of games, the Sixers gave off some real Warriors fumes. There is no place to hide a weak defender against that starting five of Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid. Sixers GM Elton Brand didn’t just add an All-Star to his team, he added the perfect All-Star. Harris is low maintenance, doesn’t need a ton of touches, and is going to get really fat off relatively open looks, especially compared with what he was seeing in L.A., where he was still shooting 43 percent from behind the arc. Also? This team is fucking enormous now. Unlike the Warriors, there isn’t a super obvious pecking order in Philly, and the only foreseeable problem is when/if there is any internal disagreement on said order among the players. Until that day, I’m going to enjoy the hell out of this. What’s your early review of the new Sixers?
Verrier: The Warriors should probably just concede now and get it over with. No, but seriously, the Bobi & Tobi–era Sixers have been pretty damn impressive. Embiid basically flossed with the Lakers’ frontcourt, and yet the feeling coming out of the 23-point blowout was not about how great some of their individuals are but how great their offense works in concert. We’ve talked (or at least I have) incessantly about the fit issues on a team whose two young superstars are different mutations of a center. But with Harris, they’ve basically Simmons-proofed their roster.
Ryan: Joel Embiid agrees with you!
Verrier: If defenders want to sag off Ben, like LeBron did Sunday, he can now hit two of the NBA’s best shooters at their positions. He can set screens for Butler for some of those pick-and-roll sets Jimmy was kvetching for. They haven’t even begun to tap into the ballhandling that Tobias brings to the table. It all makes so much sense now. My analysis of the trade when it happened was: good player, bad trade. I still think that’s true; I don’t think co-owner Michael Rubin will be able to take Embiid on any island vacations once the franchise starts making luxury-tax payments. But I wonder whether sometimes we get so deep into the weeds about asset accumulation and draft picks and young player development that we forget that adding a really good player to a really good team can be really helpful.
Ryan: It’s hard to overstate the amount of turnover this franchise has seen in the past six years. Three front-office regimes, dozens of players. Hell, this is the third incarnation of the Sixers this season. And we didn’t even mention the team trading its latest no. 1 draft pick for a magic-beans late-first-rounder and Jonathon Simmons!
Verrier: I still believe in Jon Simmons, Hustle God. Whatever spirit and good vibes and merch sales were lost in the jettisoning of the Homie seem to have resurfaced. I guess winning does solve all problems. Does it feel like the Sixers have reclaimed what they once had? Or does this team read like a brand-new experience through its first two games together?
Ryan: Brand-new experience. The campfire sing-along is over, the five-year plan is now a countdown to Ben’s rookie extension, when everything gets incredibly expensive. It turns out the great inflection point in Process history was the Redick signing, because it was a harbinger of things to come: If you want to move up a level, you have to bring in the talent from that level. Two games is an obscenely small sample size, but this doesn’t seem like the 1-2-3-4-5 Sixers, it seems like the not-fucking-around crew.
Verrier: CLOSE THE FUCKING BRIDGE, DANNY.
Ryan: The funny thing is, I feel like Brand built a Boston killer, with all the attendant switchability and physicality, but I don’t have a feel for how this new Sixers team will match up with the Bucks or Raptors, who also tooled up for the stretch run.
Verrier: It’s funny—even though the Celtics already look like the Pelicans when Kyrie is out of the game, I can’t shake the feeling that Brad Stevens with two days to prep is still any East team’s biggest roadblock to the Finals. I watched Marc Gasol’s debut with the Raptors (a 104-99 win in Madison Square Garden) and came away a bit … underwhelmed. Kawhi Leonard was having an off night, and so maybe the takeaways should just stop there, but it seems like Toronto has some work ahead of it in order to blend Gasol’s particular brilliance into its existing machine.
The Raps played Gasol primarily with second units, and, if that’s the plan, he’s going to carve up other teams’ benches simply by standing in the high post and touch-passing to Toronto’s many hustle merchants. But some of the slow-footed closeouts he made on defense had me wondering who he’ll guard when the Bucks throw out a Giannis Antetokounmpo–Nikola Mirotic frontcourt, or whether he can handle Joel Embiid with more space than ever. Serge Ibaka has his flaws, but the Raps look so much more flexible in their usual starting lineup. And while I have high hopes for Mirotic in Milwaukee, his injury issues are already following him to the Midwest. I wonder whether either has a bulletproof five-man combination that can best the Sixers in a playoff series, when something that’s easier to cover up now, like Brook Lopez’s tank mobility or OG Anunoby’s shooting slump, could swing the series. Man, life comes at you fast. Is either more worrisome to the Sixers for you, or is it still Boston?
Ryan: Piggybacking your “sometimes it just takes good players” koan, sometimes you can have too many good players, or young players on the precipice of being good players, or good players that haven’t gotten their quan back after destroying their leg, or players named Jaylen Brown who scream, “I’VE ABANDONED MY BOY,” every time they have to fight through a screen.
I think Philly has the best starting five in the conference, but Milwaukee, Toronto, and Boston feel like more complete teams. Philly also might have the least inspiring in-game coach of the bunch. Boston is still the bogeyman for Philly. Like I’ve said before, they remind me a lot of a LeBron Cleveland team, and I learned to judge those LeBron Cleveland teams after the Finals, not after struggle press conferences midseason. Danny Ainge just pulled the front-office version of Gregg Popovich’s “let them play through it” coaching move. You can read that as “We like our team more than Marcus Morris does.” Or maybe he realizes what no one else in the East seems to: Nobody is beating Golden State this season, so you might as well keep your powder dry for Anthony Davis in July.
The Western Conference teams certainly seemed a little more hip to that concept: There was hardly a move of consequence made by any of that conference’s current playoff teams. The Lakers’ recent on-court capitulations speak to a much deeper institutional schism between LeBron and the front office, but I have to side with Magic and Rob Pelinka here: Anthony Davis is actually not enough to be beat Boogie Down Productions. Durant just put 39 on the Heat on Sunday night … and that’s how he plays when he’s disgruntled.
Verrier: The West playoff field is starting to feel like the Five-Timers Club. Two new teams will likely jump into the fray this year, but otherwise it’s the same faces in different spots. Some sort of karmic balance has caught up to the Nuggets after their charmed first half; they lost all three games of their recent Eastern road trip, and even if they bounce back, the feeling of inevitability surrounding even the slightest sign of trouble speaks for itself. The Warriors may not be playing better than ever, but they may have their best mix of comfort, motivation, and talent since the 28-game win streak. Yet for the first time since their dynastic run began, there’s no clear-cut challenger standing between them and a fifth straight NBA Finals. It’s a shame that neither the Jazz nor the Trail Blazers swung for the fences at the deadline. A Mike Conley here or a Nikola Vucevic there would’ve at least made it interesting.
Ryan: If Denver isn’t battle-tested, Houston is playing three-card monte, and the Jazz can’t get back to last season’s heights, then Oklahoma City, by default, is Golden State’s closest challenger. Which I’m sure delights … Golden State fans. That being said, are you getting some San Antonio vibes from the Thunder this season? They may not play with Spursian tactical discipline or exploit on-court inefficiencies, but the way the Thunder have been able to reconstruct a conference heavyweight around two stars and a bunch of mid-to-late first-round picks and reclamation projects is really impressive. Like, what are we doing here with Terrance Ferguson? And is it just my deep personal bias, or does Paul George have as much of an MVP claim as James Harden?
Verrier: I know Giannis is the best player on the best team, and George is the best two-way player in the game right now, but if we deny Harden another MVP as a way to make up for Russell Westbrook’s it will be a travesty. Harden is having one of the greatest offensive seasons in history, and unlike the Thunder’s league-average offense in 2016-17, the Rockets are surviving in the West because Harden has powered their offense to a rating better than the Warriors’ in their 73-win season.
I’d have George third on my fake ballot if the season ended today, but I’d also have the Thunder as second-best in the West. Even with Andre Roberson sidelined and Patrick Patterson eating up more luxury-tax money than helpful minutes, OKC has this Crazy 88s band of long athletes that they can relentlessly throw at you. And whether it’s George’s emergence or buying into the team’s defensive identity, Westbrook has become almost the elite version of that OKC archetype; he has never shot this poorly at this volume, but his rebound, assist, and steal numbers have never been better. (Maybe this is the version of Russ we should’ve had all along, but opportunity directed him toward volume scoring.) The old Russ will shoot the Thunder out of an important game or two before this season is over, but the net return is encouraging. The OG Thunder were at their best with Westbrook deferring to a dominant scorer on the wing and backed by a scoring combo guard, and while Russ-PG–Dennis Schröder is hardly Russ-Durant-Harden, the knockoff is passable. Worst case, they’re still the perfect foil for a dynasty. Maybe the West playoffs won’t be so bad after all.