The trade deadline on Thursday will provide answers to some of this season's central questions — whether certain big names (Josh Smith, Andrea Bargnani) will move; whether teams with high-profile veterans on expiring contracts will deal them to make way for younger players (Utah); whether teams with enticing young players stuck behind all-world vets will cash in now (Clippers); and whether teams with long playoff odds and cap-room dreams will finally punt the season (Dallas). Trades are fun, but elite teams rarely make moves, and few trades alter the in-season big picture in a dramatic way. With that in mind, let's look at five questions that will define the second half of the season, with some nods to trade possibilities along the way:
1. Do the Heat have another gear?
In Years 1 and 2 of the LeBron experiment, Miami was more reliable on defense than offense, where they were explosive but prone to stagnant droughts. In Year 3, Miami has blown up on offense and regressed on defense; the Heat have surged past Oklahoma City into the no. 1 spot in NBA.com's points per possession rankings, threatening to become the first Eastern Conference team to lead the league since the 2000-01 Bucks.1
Their defense has slipped to a pedestrian 11th in points allowed per possession, and while some talking heads have greatly exaggerated Miami's issues on the boards, the Heat are merely an average defensive rebounding team — just as they were last season.
Teams can win the title with an elite offense and borderline top-10 defense; the Mavs did so just two seasons ago.2 But the Heat would obviously be safer if they rediscover the hyper-alert swarming defense that won them last season's title.
It is a safe bet that they can. Their defense has gradually improved after a listless start, and the Heat have played with visibly better effort in high-stakes situations — in the fourth quarter of close games, and against top opponents on big stages. Even more telling: Miami's core lineups, the ones that will play more in the postseason, are killing teams; the Heat have outscored opponents by nearly 13 points per 100 possessions when their three stars play together, and their three or four most important lineups are destroying everyone, per NBA.com's lineup data.3
Bottom line: The Heat have been dominant when their key guys are in the game, and their key guys will get more time when things really matter. They showed a greater attention to detail in last season's playoffs, cleaning up a regular-season turnover problem. A Heat repeat remains the safest bet on the board, especially since they seem to have Oklahoma City figured out — for now.
2. Can anyone in the Eastern Conference mount a real challenge?
Things are not looking good. Most league executives pegged Chicago as the most dangerous challenger, but it's unclear if Derrick Rose will come back this season, and now Joakim Noah is dealing with some (perhaps minor) plantar fasciitis. The Bulls are still just 21st in points per possession, and though their defense will always be a menace, it's just hard to beat a top team four times in seven tries with a bottom-10 offense. There are also rumblings that the Bulls have intensified their search for a way to get under the luxury tax, which would likely mean dumping Richard Hamilton on a team with the cap room or a trade exception to absorb his salary. Hamilton is shooting just 44 percent on a minutes limit, but ditching him would put more pressure on other players to assume a larger scoring burden — a dangerous thing for a shaky offensive team.
And speaking of shaky offensive teams with great defenses: Indiana, the league's best defensive team so far, has crept from 29th to 24th in scoring over the past couple of weeks, and should get Danny Granger back in short order. That presents an interesting dilemma for Frank Vogel. Starting Granger would send Lance Stephenson to the bench and break up one of the league's most productive lineups; Indy's current starting group has logged more time than every lineup in the league save for Oklahoma City's starters, and they've outscored opponents by nearly 12 points per 100 possessions — a better point differential than Oklahoma City's league-best overall mark (plus-10.3). Bench units featuring Stephenson as the focal point have mostly failed, though the sample sizes are small. If Vogel can figure this out and coax at least an acceptable stretch run from Roy Hibbert, the Pacers, not intimidated even a smidgen by Miami, stand as an intriguing potential challenger.
But not as intriguing as New York. The Knicks can just about match Miami in terms of scoring and, having (mostly) committed to using Carmelo Anthony at power forward, can approach Miami's small-ball units without any awkward matchup issues. The Knicks have kept right on firing 3s, and while their shooting percentage from deep has declined after a red-hot start, it has settled in at a very good number — 38 percent — that more than justifies the chucking.
New York is also scoring like gangbusters when they go big with Amar'e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler, and Anthony on the floor together — a 180-degree turn from last season, when New York couldn't function with the Max Contract Brothers playing together. Mike Woodson's creative sets have helped, as has Raymond Felton, but the uptick in scoring is mostly the product of slight but sophisticated improvements among those three stars. Stoudemire is better at hunting cuts to the basket, and Anthony has refined his timing as a passer.
Alas: New York has been playing well-below-average defense after a stingy first dozen games. They're down to 15th in points allowed per possession, and they've been unwatchable defensively when Melo and the always flat-footed, switch-prone Stoudemire play together. The Knicks have allowed more than 109 points per 100 possessions when those two share the court, worse than the league's 30th-ranked defense, and Chandler's presence alongside them hasn't moved the needle at all. Units with Anthony at power forward and no Stoudemire haven't been much better since the start of the season, and for those to work well, Anthony's help defense along the back line has to be in top form.
Can they find that form? If they can, the Knicks are the most dangerous team in the Eastern Conference.
No one else merits mention at this point. The Nets have a nice record, but they've outscored opponents by only 28 points total on the season; their underachieving point guard just underwent platelet-rich plasma therapy on both ankles; their $10 million small forward, Gerald Wallace, has been a bust, and the Nets have often looked better when Joe Johnson slides to the 3; they're starting a classic backup in Reggie Evans; and they've actually thought about acquiring Andrea Bargnani (for Kris Humphries), and pairing Bargnani with Brook Lopez to form the worst rebounding front line in world history.
Boston has been hot without Rajon Rondo, but the Celtics have to prove the increased scoring punch can sustain on the road, and against better competition. Atlanta has been blah since a nice start. The Bucks will work the trade market for shooting and help on the wing, but their offense amounts to a blinding reel of inefficient jumpers, and their defense has fallen apart without LARRY SANDERS!4
3. Do the Spurs and Clippers have enough to overcome Oklahoma City?
This is perhaps the most interesting big question in the league, and one that at first sounds disrespectful to the team with the NBA's best record. The Spurs sport a spry Tim Duncan, a legit bronze-medal MVP candidate in Tony Parker,5 and a stingier defense than last season — thanks in part to the improved synergy of the Duncan–Tiago Splitter combo.6 But Oklahoma City's four-game rally in the conference finals last season had the feel of a younger team figuring out how to beat its more polished elders — pack the paint on defense, leverage your athleticism advantage, and vary the play calling a tad.
James Harden is gone, but the Thunder are better. We should regard them as the favorites. The Spurs' offense isn't quite the same dominant machine it was last season — they're "only" fourth in points per 100 possessions, a full three points below the top spot they held last season — and they'll need more sustained top-level play from Manu Ginobili to beat elite teams when it counts.
The Clippers should absolutely be all-in to win the title this season; Chris Paul's prime comes but once. The challenge the team faces over the next three days is upgrading its big-man rotation without sacrificing both DeAndre Jordan and Eric Bledsoe — the current asking price for any Kevin Garnett deal, and the reason the Bledsoe–Paul Millsap rumors may have some legs. Jordan isn't a great player, and his development on offense this season has been a disappointment, but he's still a valuable commodity going forward.
The Clips are in a fascinating spot. They're a tick below San Antonio and Oklahoma City by almost any standard, but if you remove the nine games Chris Paul missed with knee problems and his first return game, in which he played only 19 minutes, the Clips' average scoring margin leaps to the no. 1 spot in the league. They won 17 games in a row, and they've had success closing with Lamar Odom in Jordan's place and Jamal Crawford at shooting guard.
But is that enough? Odom is still shooting just 39 percent, and for all the talk about how Jordan and Griffin can't finish close games together because of their poor free throw shooting, Odom is just 11-of-25 from the line all season. He remains a very good passer, ball handler, and rebounder, but his work as a "floor spacer" on offense amounts to staying far away from the paint and hoping defenses make the mistake of respecting his jumper.
The foundation here just feels a hair shakier than it does in San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and Miami. The Clippers will have to trade Bledsoe at some point for both financial and basketball reasons, and if they can snag a starter-level big man in exchange, they should go for it — provided they are sure they can re-sign Chris Paul this summer.
4. What is Philly supposed to do now?
The Sixers have to make major decisions about their future from a position of almost total uncertainty — a huge disadvantage. Re-signing Andrew Bynum at a fair number this summer would cap them out, and doing the same with Evan Turner next summer would clog up their cap sheet for nearly a half-decade. Bynum hasn't played all season, and the organization at this point is very worried he'll never play a game in Philly.
How do you approach the trade market from that perspective? Jrue Holiday is a stud on a very good contract, but everything else is up in the air. The organization is divided on Turner, they're not necessarily committed to keeping Thaddeus Young for the duration of his contract, and Bynum is a mystery with funny hair. The Sixers could go in any number of dramatically different directions over the next few days, and which direction they choose will affect the league's broader landscape going forward.
5. How will the middle of the Western Conference shake out?
This really boils down to a few sub-questions that will determine who snags the no. 4 seed, and which mid-tier team might spring an upset over one of the conference's top three:
• Can Denver craft an elite defense? We've covered that here, and the sense around the league remains that Denver will pass on any dramatic moves at the deadline. But the Nuggets have surprised before.
• What's up with the Warriors? The Dubs have lost five straight, with four of those games on the road against stiff competition, and their defense is showing serious cracks — even with Andrew Bogut back. The Warriors have fallen to 16th in points allowed per possession, and they have actually been worse with Bogut on the floor, per NBA.com. During an All-Star Weekend one-on-one with Grantland, Klay Thompson chalked up the decline to fatigue, and the new starting lineup with Bogut is at least thriving on offense. But Bogut hasn't had the expected impact7 in a very limited sample size, and Golden State showed some slippage before the break in the basic execution of its revamped defensive scheme.
That losing streak probably cost Golden State any real chance at the no. 4 spot, though the Warriors finish with 16 of their last 23 games at home. They have a small trade exception left over from the Bogut deal, but they're also $1.5 million over the tax line, meaning they may be more likely to dump salary rather than add a significant amount. They've dangled the dead money attached to Richard Jefferson and Andris Biedrins in search of another usable piece, but found no takers.
• Can Memphis find a post-Rudy groove? The Grizz, a below-average offensive team for the season, have scored at a top-10 rate since dealing Rudy Gay, but it's unclear whether that improvement is real or merely the result of some random hot shooting (39 percent from deep in their last six games on just about the same paltry number of attempts) and a recent schedule loaded with defensive sieves. The team's assist rate, always very low, has jumped up; Tayshaun Prince might not be a legit floor spacer, but he moves and passes in smart ways inside the arc. Austin Daye has been one of the league's hottest shooters (stay tuned for the collapse), and Memphis's defense has stayed solid.
The team's offensive rebounding rate, its bread and butter, has dropped off, perhaps the result of losing some athleticism in the Gay-Prince exchange and relying more on Marc Gasol facilitating from the elbows.
This team wasn't a real title contender before the trade, but it was good enough to give anyone problems in a single seven-game series. That is probably still their ceiling, but it will be interesting to see if the deal nudged that ceiling up or down. The Grizz have a bunch of trade exceptions, including a $7.2 million bad boy they got via creative structuring of the Gay deal, and they've gotten themselves far enough below the tax to fill that hole with a shooter. Finding a really good one, like J.J. Redick, will be tough, since their pre-Rudy deal with the Cavs already sent a future first-round pick — a needed sweetener — out the door.
10 Things I Like and Don't Like
1. The All-Star Skills Challenge
It's time to kill this, or at least add some new elements/obstacles. The format has grown stale, the crowd doesn't care, and there is very little relevant skill differentiation between the participating players. Scrap it, or turn it into a skills competition for INFLATABLE NBA MASCOTS!
2. Milwaukee's Perimeter Defense
This is a problem only an interior stud like SANDERS! can contain; without him, the Bucks are basically dead. Monta Ellis still has all the same bad habits that have dogged him everywhere — an upright stance that makes him prone to blow-bys, a tendency to watch the ball and allow back cuts, bad gambling, etc. Brandon Jennings is better, but he can be loose with his fundamentals and get lost on pick-and-rolls.
The Bucks need to pick one of these guys going forward, and it will likely be Jennings. There is a lot of skepticism about Dallas's alleged interest in dealing for Jennings now, and it would shock the league if Ellis exercises his $11 million player option for next season instead of opting out to secure a long-term deal in free agency.
3. Tommy Heinsohn's Love of Fast Breaks
This is one charming part of Heinsohn's otherwise irritating homer shtick: The solution to any basketball problem, or really any international socioeconomic problem, is to get out in transition more often. Lose Rondo? Run more! Suffer the loss of another creative player in Leandro Barbosa? Get out on the break! Are global temperatures increasing at scary rates? Run the floor!
4. Tyson Chandler's Post Defense
Defense in the paint is an underrated part of Chandler's game, since we focus so often on his pick-and-roll D and generally brilliant roving, but this dude is a beast in the post. He requires little help, he's tough to move, he never fouls, and he rarely goes for pump fakes. He challenges shots with both arms up and holds guys to low shooting percentages on the block. A great, great player.
5. The Sad Symbolism of Dante Cunningham's Jumper
Cunningham has provided Minnesota with valuable minutes. He's a solid defender who brings energy on both ends, and he has a useful midrange jump shot that can work as a safety valve in any offense.
But Cunningham should not be attempting 7.4 long 2-point jumpers per 40 minutes, the fourth-highest figure among all rotation players; that he is doing so is the perfect representation of what can happen to a team that suffers too many injuries. A release to use on wide-open pick-and-pops at the end of the shot clock, or when defenses load up on better players, becomes a weapon upon which a depleted team must lean to an unhealthy degree. Whenever Cunningham jacks up a series of these, I think of what might have been for the 2012-13 Timberwolves.
6. Darren Collison's Defense
It's just not happening, four years in. Collison is a dynamic fast-break player, and he's gotten a tick more aggressive getting in the lane on pick-and-rolls instead of settling for maddening pull-up jumpers when another dribble or two would produce something much better. But he's still lost on defense, prone to confusion and especially to veering way off course negotiating picks. Point guard defense matters, and Collison's is a big net negative.
7. Checkers on the Sides of Jerseys
The Kings' 1990s throwback jerseys were a schizophrenic mess, but I enjoyed the checkerboard pattern that ran down the sides. Ditto for the special NASCAR-themed jerseys the Bobcats have used in the past. The checkerboard never should have been the centerpiece of any sports uniform — see the Croatia national team soccer jerseys, for instance — but I'm onboard with them as a minor design element.
8. Calling the Pick-and-Roll Shove
It happened! I saw it! The officials in last Tuesday's Memphis-Sacramento game whistled Marc Gasol for shoving a Sacramento big man toward midcourt as that big was about to set a screen for a Kings guard in a standard high pick-and-roll. Big guys on defense do this all the time, and it's a useful — and illegal — way to mess up an opposing pick-and-roll. The screener might collide with the ball handler, and at the very least, the shove might help the defending point guard get around the failed pick.
And referees never call this. We yell and scream about flops, but no one seems to care much about a blatant foul that messes up several possessions in every NBA game. Please crack down on this, NBA.
9. Tristan Thompson's Righty Floater
If Cunningham's jumper is the sad symbol of Minny's lost season, then Thompson's off-hand floater might be the sign that perhaps Cleveland didn't blow the 2011 draft by selecting Thompson over Jonas Valanciunas. Thompson has been thriving in a larger role since Anderson Varejao's season-ending injury. He's always been an active defender in space and a loud offensive rebounder, but he's improved on the defensive glass and looked like a competent pick-and-roll player on the move. Thompson can catch in the lane one dribble from the basket, read the defense, and make the correct decision — pass, pump and drive, or launch that sweet floater? Good stuff.
10. Guarding Stretch 4's with 3's
This is a creative way for defenses to stay attached to Ryan Anderson types on the perimeter, something traditional big men don't do as well as wings accustomed to defending far from the rim. It helps if the shooting power forward in question doesn't have a post game with which to punish wing defenders, and especially if the small forward on the shooter's team is non-threatening enough that a bigger/slower player can check him.
Teams have been throwing wings on Anderson more over the course of this season, and a few Milwaukee opponents have recently done the same to Ersan Ilyasova — provided Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is on the floor to offer the required nonthreatening hiding place for a bigger defender. Watch for this.