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The NBA’s Pre-shutdown Moves That Could Decide the East

Subtle shifts in Milwaukee, Miami, and Philadelphia from four months ago could ultimately swing a playoff series and decide who advances to the Finals

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture should be as ugly as ever in the NBA’s restart. But the Nets and Wizards were never serious threats to the top seeds anyway. The gap between the top of the East and West is as small as it has been in years. There should be some fantastic playoff series in the East, assuming everyone stays healthy.

The Bucks, Heat, and 76ers all made critical changes in the weeks before the shutdown on March 11. It’s easy to forget about them given all that has happened since. But those moves could determine who emerges from the conference in Orlando:

Milwaukee Bucks

Marvin Williams didn’t light the world on fire after joining the Bucks in mid-February, averaging 4.0 points on 41.0 percent shooting in 11 games. But the 15-year veteran could still be a huge part of their playoff success.

The Hornets bought Williams out so that he could play for a contender. He was a casualty of their rebuilding projecting following the departure of Kemba Walker, benched for younger players despite having plenty of gas left in the tank.

He’s best known for being the no. 2 overall pick in the 2005 draft, ahead of Chris Paul and Deron Williams, but no one lasts this long in the NBA without being talented in their own right. Williams is a prototype stretch power forward who should be able play at a high level for a few more seasons. At 34, he’s two years younger than Robert Horry was when he won the last of his seven NBA titles with the 2007 Spurs.

Williams, like Horry, has the size (6-foot-8 and 237 pounds) to hold his own in the paint while being able to move his feet in space. He’s also a proven marksman who shot 37.8 percent from 3 on 4.2 attempts per game in his last five and a half seasons in Charlotte. He doesn’t have the same history of playoff heroics, but the best player that he has ever played with is Joe Johnson in Atlanta.

The Bucks need a big man who could space the floor for Giannis Antetokounmpo without giving up anything on defense. Williams is no longer the elite athlete he was in his prime, but he’s still a better perimeter defender than Brook Lopez, Robin Lopez, or Ersan Ilyasova. Their issues guarding in space don’t matter in the regular season because the Milwaukee defense is built around protecting the rim at all costs, but during last season’s playoffs, it was their Achilles heel. Toronto could always get a basket in last year’s Eastern Conference finals by exposing Brook Lopez in a pick-and-roll against Kawhi Leonard.

A team like the Celtics could use a similar strategy with Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum. That’s where Williams becomes important. He’s a versatile defender who can guard all over the floor. Look at how well he matched up with Pascal Siakam in a victory over the Raptors in late February:

While he doesn’t have the same type of offensive game as Lopez, that shouldn’t be an issue playing next to Giannis and Khris Middleton. All Williams has to do is spot up at the 3-point line and move the ball if he’s not open. He hasn’t shot 3s well in his brief time in Milwaukee (29.6 percent on 2.5 attempts per game) but those numbers should move back to his career averages in time. The other important skill he brings is taking care of the ball without making mistakes. Williams is averaging 1.4 assists on 0.3 turnovers per game for the Bucks.

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer prefers those kinds of reliable veterans in his rotation. Third-year big man D.J. Wilson has the same skill set as Williams, but Bud has buried him on the bench. He doesn’t historically make many adjustments in playoff series, so Williams already earning his trust in the regular season is huge.

The key role for Williams will be playing in smaller lineups with Giannis at the 5. He’s been much better in those than in more conventional frontcourts with the Lopez twins. He goes from a net rating of plus-26.7 in 49 minutes with the reigning MVP to plus-0.5 in 154 minutes without him.

Playing four 3-and-D players around Giannis puts opponents in an almost impossible position. They can only leave one defender on him while having nowhere to attack on defense. That formula is Milwaukee’s best chance of winning their first NBA title in almost 50 years. If that happens, Williams will have probably hit a few big shots along the way.

Miami Heat

Miami made a splash at the trade deadline when it rescued Andre Iguodala from his self-imposed exile in Memphis. The Heat sent away Justise Winslow, James Johnson, and Dion Waiters in a three-team deal in exchange for Iguodala, Jae Crowder, and Solomon Hill. Iguodala, who signed a two-year $30 million extension with a team option for the second season, was supposed to be the missing piece.

It hasn’t worked out that way so far. Rust was inevitable for a 36-year-old who sat out the first two-thirds of the season. But Iguodala also doesn’t fit as well in Miami as he did in Golden State.

The team’s two best players—Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo—are the South Beach version of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid in that neither star duo can space the floor. It hasn’t been that big of an issue for the Heat because everyone else in their rotation can shoot 3s. Iguodala, who is shooting 37.5 percent from 3 on 1.7 attempts in 14 games with his new team, is now the exception. His shooting numbers are right in line with his marks (34.2 percent on 2.4 attempts) in six seasons with the Warriors. More troubling than the percentages are the lack of attempts. Defenses leave him open on the perimeter and he rarely makes them pay.

Iguodala has a net rating of minus-35.7 in 37 minutes with Butler and Adebayo. It’s a tiny sample size, but there’s no reason to think those three can play together against an elite defense. The spacing just doesn’t work. Look at how the Pelicans forced the ball into his hands in a victory over the Heat in March:

His streaky jumper didn’t matter in Golden State because he was playing with three of the game’s greatest shooters, all of whom could move off the ball. Iguodala could initiate the offense and find them spread out on the perimeter, a role that isn’t available to him in Miami.

He has been better in a second-unit lineup with Crowder that features plenty of 3-point shooters in Goran Dragic, Duncan Robinson, and Kelly Olynyk. That group, which has a net rating of plus-39.8 in 73 minutes, has the spacing to unlock Iguodala’s cutting and playmaking ability on the move.

Crowder has been the more valuable deadline acquisition of the two. He’s averaging more minutes (28.7 per game) than Iguodala (18.5) because he’s not afraid to fire from 3, shooting 39.3 percent on 6.8 attempts per game in Miami. The Heat need their supporting cast to complement Butler rather than replicate him.

Both veteran wings could lose playing time to promising rookie Tyler Herro, who is healthy after missing 15 games with ankle soreness. Iguodala would still come out a winner, though. He took off four months and still managed to squeeze an extra $15 million from a team that he doesn’t make much sense on. It’s a great deal if you can get it.

Philadelphia 76ers

Philadelphia quietly added three solid rotation players in the month before the league suspended play. The team traded three second-round picks to Golden State for Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III, and benefited from the unexpected rise of second-year guard Shake Milton after Ben Simmons went down with a back injury. Now coach Brett Brown has to figure out how all three fit around Simmons, who should be near 100 percent when the NBA resumes.

The first question is whether to move Al Horford back to the bench. Horford, Simmons, and Joel Embiid have not played well together this season. There’s just not enough space for all three to operate. Simmons and Embiid go from an offensive rating of 98.8 in 429 minutes with Horford to 110.0 in 360 minutes without him.

Benching Horford creates one spot in the starting lineup for Milton, Burks, or Robinson. Each brings something different. Milton, the best shooter, has the edge over Burks, the best playmaker, and Robinson, the best defender.

Milton’s emergence was one of the few bright spots in a disappointing season. A 2018 second-round pick from SMU who spent most of his rookie season in the G League, he averaged 12.8 points on 52.6 percent shooting, 3.1 assists, and 2.7 rebounds in his last 20 games with the 76ers, including scoring 39 points against the Clippers on March 1:

He will not keep shooting 51.2 percent from 3 like he did during that stretch, but there’s no reason to think his performance is a fluke. Milton was an elite shooter in college (career 42.7 percent from 3 on 5.1 attempts per game) with great size (6-foot-5 and 207 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan) and the ability to create plays off the dribble and in the pick-and-roll. He’s a multidimensional offensive player who should be able to spot up off Simmons and relieve some of the playmaking pressure in the half-court.

The knock on Milton entering the league was that his subpar lateral quickness would prevent him from holding up on defense. But that should be less of an issue with all the great defenders around him in Philadelphia.

The 76ers didn’t know they would be getting so much from Milton when they traded for Burks and Robinson, but they can still help their new team. The former was averaging 16.1 points and 3.1 assists per game for the Warriors and provides some offensive punch off the bench. The latter is a low-maintenance 3-and-D wing who can defend three positions.

This is the deepest team that Philadelphia has ever had in the Simmons and Embiid era. While that’s a low bar to clear, making the jump from bad to average in your supporting cast is huge. The 76ers now have an elite defender (rookie Matisse Thybulle) and elite shooter (Furkan Korkmaz) as their ninth and 10th men. They will only go as far as their two polarizing stars will take them—but their role players will no longer be the ones holding them back.