Let's face it — the best and most powerful teams in the NBA don't really change from week to week. A handful of results in the middle of winter can only mean so much to a franchise's championship hopes. What does shift regularly, though, is how much interest a squad can hold over the course of a season. Every week, BDL's Most Interesting Power Rankings track the teams most worthy of your attention.
This time: the aftermath of the most ground-shaking trade deadline Thursday in NBA history.
THE TOP 15
This won’t be quite as awkward as the tortuous 2011-12 season the Orlando Magic put us through, as we rolled eyes through 66 games while Dwight Howard talked out of the side of his mouth while making (literal) promises we knew he’d never live up to. Howard and James Harden are far too passive aggressive to turn this into too big a soap opera.
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Reports say that the two don’t much care for each other and, if we’re honest, we can see where both players are coming from in regards to the alleged mutual enmity. Houston still failed to find a taker for Howard on Thursday, though, as the free agent to-be seeks out yet another Perfect Home (and oh by the way can you still pay me as much as legally possible; something like $30 million a year deep into my mid-30s, thanks).
Cap complications, a reported high asking price and the idea that the Rockets (currently ranked eighth in the West) could still make the playoffs without Howard (thereby ensuring that the team would have to send its first round draft pick to Denver) got in the way of any deal, so here the Rockets are. Uneasy by nature, likely first round playoff fodder for a Golden State team they met in the Conference finals last season, waiting for Howard’s time to jet.
(Unless he makes a show of things and opts-in again. Never doubt the man’s ability to be swayed by one plane ride.)
The Heat are hardly a mess right now, winners of two straight coming out of the All-Star break against Southeast Division rivals (because divisions are still a thing!) from Atlanta and Washington. Josh McRoberts managed a +20 in just 19 minutes against the Wizards even while missing five of six shots, acting as the straw that stirred the drink, while Hassan Whiteside came off the bench to contribute 23 points, 25 rebounds and two blocks in just 29 minutes.
However, the team is sadly without Chris Bosh yet again, as he determines a way to safely play through lingering blood clot issues. Dwyane Wade’s time on the bench (those knees, again) will probably extend into the workweek, and there’s no telling how long the team can manage to circle the wagons with a rookie in Justise Winslow starting at ostensible power forward, and the absolute opposite of a rookie in Amar’e Stoudemire jumping tip at starting center.
Worse, a full calendar year into their time together, it’s become apparent that Wade and starting point guard Goran Dragic are not meshing. Dragic has averaged over 20 points, nine assists, six rebounds and two steals in those two wins without Wade, and it will be interesting to watch over the next two months how the two will attempt to put it all together.
Miami isn’t dumping Dwyane, a free agent this summer and a Mr. Heat if there ever was. Dragic has already been committed to in free agency and he should be in his prime. Meanwhile the team has a 7-foot 26-year old dropping 20s off the bench; though they’ll have to dig into their own cap space to retain him this summer. And Florida probably isn’t even on Kevin Durant’s radar.
Important few weeks, fellas.
The Pistons have lost five straight, and just watched as Anthony Davis ate just about every member of the team’s frontline’s lunch on Sunday. Coach Stan Van Gundy can’t put his shirt on the right way, apparently, and the team may have to void the deal that sent a first round pick out for Donatas Montiejunas and Marcus Thornton.
A cynic would wonder if the Pistons would be working with buyer’s remorse after coughing up a pick for a much-traveled swingman and a scoring forward with back issues (the crux of the extended physicals); but the Pistons can easily talk themselves into parting ways with that pick when they remind themselves that Orlando didn’t push for a first-rounder in the deal that sent Tobias Harris to Detroit. When healthy Donatas can either post up and spread the floor, acting as much-needed insurance in the wake of sending Ersan Ilyasova to Orlando.
Detroit has until early evening on Monday to make up its mind, and though the team is in desperate win-now mode as it attempts to make the playoffs for the first time since 2009, it’s possible that a void still might be on the table. Despite SVG’s remarks about putting up with occasional time on the shelf for Montiejunas in order “to get a guy of his talent.”
The Bulls have won two of three since the All-Star break, but this team is a tepid mess right now. The group dealt long time point guard Kirk Hinrich (the source of much consternation for Bulls fans, not only because of his play but also because of the machinations needed to reacquire him back in the 2012 offseason) to save cash, and passed on dealing likely free agent Pau Gasol not because of a too-high asking price, but reportedly because they want to re-sign the 35-year old in the offseason.
Meanwhile, Jimmy Butler and Nikola Mirotic are weeks away from returning to full health due to some very Bulls-like conditions: Mirotic’s appendectomy surgery resulted in complications that his surgeon said were the first he’d seen in three decades of performing the procedure, while Butler was allowed to ignore Chicago’s medical staff while playing on a knee that clearly needed rest. Their absence left the Bulls dealing from a position of weakness at the deadline. To say nothing of Joakim Noah’s situation – no team wanted to deal any assets for a player who will likely sit out the rest of the season prior to leaving in free agency.
Derrick Rose’s improved play of late (he might be the league best bank-shot artist right now) did not inspire any teams to push to acquire the $21.3 million he’s owed next year. That’s presuming Chicago attempted to deal him, of course.
5. Boston Celtics (33-24; last week: 8)
The C’s rebounded from a rather distressing blowout loss in Utah on Friday with a dominant turn from start to finish against Denver on Sunday. General manager Danny Ainge technically sat out the trade deadline, either failing to find listeners in Cleveland (Kevin Love) and Sacramento (DeMarcus Cousins) while reportedly inquiring about polarizing Philadelphia rookie Jahlil Okafor.
When the dust settled, Ainge still had his same crew of on-a-string good guys, a top three defense, and his famous pile of impressive draft assets. Boston’s rotation isn’t old enough that drafting a teenager with a high-end draft pick this June would make for a Knicks-styled brand of incongruity, and while we respect the talents of the stars Ainge was rumored to be after and the potential of Okafor (who, for all his troubles, is still giving 17 and seven with a block in just 30 minutes at age 20; and maybe on the right team he could turn it around), the non-moves were probably the right moves.
How Boston responds, with their leader passing on adding the hoped for “star” to the lineup, will be telling. If the Denver win was any indication, the Celtics will be set for now.
6. Cleveland Cavaliers (40-14; last week: 5)
The Eastern champs beat up on an already beat-up Chicago Bulls team prior to dominating the Thunder in Oklahoma City on Sunday afternoon. Rumored to be considering a white flag on the Kevin Love experiment prior to the trade deadline, while looking for a prototypical center to replace the disappointing production of the apparently still-recovering Timofey Mozgov, the Cavs stood pat with Love while acquiring the opposite of a prototype center – wispy stretch four Channing Frye.
Love responded with one of his best games as a Cavalier on Sunday, finishing with 29 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and zero turnovers alongside capable and Vine-averse defense. Frye has yet to play, but his mere presence on the floor (even if he isn’t firing up six threes in 12 minutes) will aid Cleveland’s already formidable offense. His placement in the rotation also allows for veteran James Jones to move farther down the bench: Cleveland can’t have Jones playing major playoff minutes, as he had to do in last year’s Finals with Love out of action.
7. Los Angeles Clippers (36-19; last week: 1)
It was perhaps the most laughable and obvious February deal since the time Isiah Thomas decided to pair Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis.
Clippers coach/GM Doc Rivers decided to trade for yet another Guy Doc’s Heard Of in former Celtic Jeff Green, who played under Rivers from Feb. 2011 until 2013. The cost was minimal (Lance Stephenson, who wasn’t helping anyone) and Green’s typically benign presence won’t be nearly as destructive as Starbury and Franchise making Larry Brown’s left eye twitch involuntarily, so the deal served better for blog and/or Twitter jokes than anything.
And, as is always the case with Green, there will be nights where he can help. Stuck at stretch four or swingman, he can contribute while the Clippers serve under Blake Griffin’s ongoing absence. Still, the idea that the Clippers are just a game up on their trading partner (the Marc Gasol-less Grizzlies) in late February stands as a disappointment in what could have been a championship season.
8. Atlanta Hawks (31-26; last week: 6)
It’s safe to say that the Hawks have worked through a curious eight months in the wake of Danny Ferry’s official separation from the team.
The franchise dealt the No. 15 pick in last year’s draft (and the ability to select any number of solid mid-to-late round prospects, including Bobby Portis) for Tim Hardaway Jr. That deal could be argued away had Hardaway turned a corner this year, but instead he’s played just 382 minutes while shooting 36 percent. Trade deadline day saw the team holding pat save for acquiring Kirk Hinrich, who doesn’t figure to earn many minutes with Dennis Schroeder in at reserve point guard.
Schroeder is a polarizing player, he’s worked well with the team’s starters this season but the short amount of minutes in that sample size is awfully noisy. Starter Jeff Teague and stalwart Al Horford were most definitely on the block, but both will remain for the rest of the year. Teague is signed through 2017, while Horford will become a free agent a month after turning 30 this summer.
In the meantime, you have stasis. An Atlanta Hawk sample, dating back to the last century.
9. Washington Wizards (25-29; last week: not ranked)
Be honest, you just assumed that Markieff Morris was going to kick a little ass with the Wizards, right? That’s what bad guys do. It’s why Vince Carter turned in an MVP-level performance after basically throwing games in Toronto prior to his trade to Jason Kidd’s Nets during 2004-05. Sometimes these things are just so annoyingly obvious.
So far, though, things haven’t worked out. Over two games, both losses, Morris has missed 11 of 15 shots while pulling in six rebounds in 43 reserve minutes. There is still time, of course, as we’re only two games into the Markieff Morris era in Washington, and it’s still tough to argue against giving up a middling first round pick for Morris’ affordable contract and obvious potential.
Still, the expected turnaround has yet to happen. Perhaps we’ll have to wait until April 1st, when the Wizards visit Phoenix, and Morris attempts to become the first NBA player since John Starks to play an entire contest with just one extended finger.
10. Phoenix Suns (14-42; last week: not ranked)
GM Ryan McDonough revealed himself to be stubborn and pugnacious, as people with his surname usually come, and while those can often turn out to be winning characteristics, he may have let his team down in this instance.
Keeping Markieff Morris for more than half the season wasn’t the lone reason the Suns are once again a high lottery team, his low-usage presence isn’t as destructive as other types of players that can ruin a season, but McDonough certainly should have taken the opportunity to sell low back in the summer, well before Morris had to return to Suns camp in order to keep the paychecks coming in.
In a lot of ways it’s easy to see the method behind McDonough’s madness, though. He may not have been able to wrest a first round pick for Morris back in the summer, and it may have taken a desperate and underachieving Wizards team to quickly talk themselves into a mid-February deal for such a drafting prize to become available. We won’t ever know.
We do know that the Suns are out a coach, they have a respected-yet-aging center taking minutes from an emerging center, and we’re scared that Eric Bledsoe (after yet another knee surgery) may never be “Eric Bledsoe” again. The situation, somehow, still bears observing.
11. Golden State Warriors (49-5; last week: 15)
The Warriors’ list of personnel decisions since the 2011 lockout ended (depending on your feelings regarding DeAndre Jordan) has been seemingly spotless, but it appears to have taken a little hit in the post-trade deadline world as the team chases down Anderson Varejao. The former Cavs center, who was dealt to Portland last week prior to being waived, cost the team forward Jason Thompson (who was waived via the stretch provision), as the franchise needed a roster spot to bring in the reserve center.
With that in place, replacing a good forward with a so-so center is a typical NBA move, even if the Warriors aren’t your typical NBA franchise. Varejao hasn’t looked himself in 310 spotty minutes this season as the 33-year old deals with the onset of age and the realities of returning from an Achilles tear, but Thompson played nearly half of that total in his lone year with the champs, and the W’s need certainty in the pivot with Festus Ezili out for extended time and Andrew Bogut giving his all on dodgy ankles.
The 29-year old Thompson is a better player at this point, we all know this. Even in the modern, smaller game, however, a center’s a center, y’know?
12. Memphis Grizzlies (32-23; last week: not ranked)
We could just end this discussion on an already-old joke by pointing out that Lance Stephenson is now on the same team as Tony Allen, and moving along, but that would be a disservice to readers.
We should revisit the Jeff Green era in Memphis, one that began with the Grizzlies (already short on picks due to a previous salary dump) sending a first round draft pick to Boston for a player in Green whose “production” seemed to fly in the face of the assumed goals of the team’s analytic-minded front office. How the team was forced to desperately go after Chris Andersen in the wake of Marc Gasol’s likely season-ending injury. How the team might be in place to spend a quarter of its salary cap on Mike Conley’s early 30s when he becomes a free agent in July. How the team may have overvalued its 31-22 record at the time.
Nah: Lance Stephenson is on the same team as Tony Allen. This is fantastic. LOL, go Grizzlies.
13. Orlando Magic (24-30; last week: 12)
There are ways to argue away the fact that the Magic failed to land a first round pick for Tobias Harris, dealing him instead for two players who might be on different teams by mid-July, hoping for addition by subtraction as any number of young forwards (as if the 23-year old Harris is a graybeard) step up to the figurative plate. We’ve spent a week doing it, and we’ll revisit it during this summer’s offseason.
For the interim, though, we should be focusing on the fun that could come from new additions Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova playing for their supper. If the two click in Orlando and put up great numbers (in what is admittedly both a crowded guard and hybrid forward situation on a middling-paced team), Jennings (a free agent) and Ersan (a candidate to have the final year of his contract guaranteed in a cap-clearing maneuver) could be perfect candidates for teams to spend heavily on once the first wave of free agency recedes and teams are left on the shore with money to burn.
This isn’t to say the former Pistons will go chuck-heavy, Jennings was a great soldier in Detroit and Ilyasova won’t have the ball in his hands, but the Magic suddenly have become an intriguing watch. And Jennings, who worked under coach Scott Skiles in Milwaukee, has already played just as many minutes as starting point man Elfrid Payton in his two games (15 points, 5.5 assists) with the Magic.
14. Sacramento Kings (23-31; last week: 11)
The Kings stood pat at the trade deadline despite a very tradeable roster of misfits (just ask the team’s coach), but that didn’t mean the trade deadline week didn’t see one major move.
The Kings decided to let assistant coach Vance Walberg – the team’s offensive coordinator – go in the face of the group’s 12th-ranked offense. Apparently it was Walberg’s fault that the team’s backcourt can’t shoot to save its life, and he was standing in the way of a top-five outfit.
Karl copped to being “disappointed and confused” by the move, but there’s nothing confusing about it. The Kings want Karl to walk away from an untenable atmosphere in Sacramento. Such a move would see Karl leaving a reported $8 million on the table, along with his hopes to retire as the winningnest coach in NBA history, so it remains unlikely in myriad ways.
Our Dan Devine entered ‘Major League II’ into the conversation when discussing the Kings last week, and the franchise similarities are apt. The Kings appear a step removed from forcing Karl (already hoarse on the sidelines and seemingly ambivalent) from traveling to games in propeller-powered planes, and the only hope for the team’s fans is that Karl leads them on a run to the playoffs (Sacto is four games out).
Of course, such a run would result in a series of 35-point thrashings at the hands of the Warriors, and the loss of a first round draft pick to Chicago.
15. Toronto Raptors (36-18; last week: 7)
The Raps feature an interesting mix of both not-ready prospects and holdovers from the previous front office’s regime, and once the group realized that dealing Patrick Patterson might not move the needle much for either Toronto or a trade partner, the team decided to move on with what it already has.
For good reason. And, as is the case with the Celtics, how the remaining Raptors respond to that vote of confidence will be something to watch. In an Eastern playoff bracket that can’t help stubbing its big toe, Toronto has taken firm grasp of the second seed in the East. For both fans and players alike that are wary of another first round disappointment (the team’s current opponent would be Chicago, a team the Raps have lost to three times already this season), a potent finish can go a long way toward increased confidence heading into the postseason.
THE BOTTON FIVE
26. New Orleans Pelicans (22-33; last week: 10)
Chuffed to watch Anthony Davis’ video game-styled thrashing of the Pistons on Sunday? You should have been. It was glorious.
Following the 59-point, 20-rebound afternoon, though, the cold water hit. Literally and figuratively. Teammates including Ryan Anderson doused Davis with cold water in celebration as he spoke to New Orleans’ broadcast affiliate, and we were all reminded that the Pelicans would like to deal just about every non-AD member of the team, and that Ryan Anderson is probably gone this July.
Situations like this don’t usually make for appointment viewing, despite Davis’ brilliance.
27. Los Angeles Lakers (11-46; last week: 30)
The Lakers did have contributors to deal, on paper at least. Vets like Lou Williams, Brandon Bass and Roy Hibbert were supposed to make the Lakers at least tolerable this year, and yet they’ve been a big part of the waste that has been 2015-16 – expected to fight for 30 wins, the Lakers will be lucky to get 20.
Kobe Bryant is still around, and there are still tribute videos to watch, though, which is why they’ve worked their way up from last week’s cellar.
28. Denver Nuggets (22-34; last week: not ranked)
Former Kings coach Michael Malone’s comments about the team that fired him last season were as entertaining – save for the re-emergence of Danilo Galinari – as anything the Nuggets have done this year. We’d be angry at the team for ensuring that we’ll have to watch Randy Foye’s missed 18-footers on national TV a ton between now and summer, but considering the idea that Foye will replace Dion Waiters in Oklahoma City’s rotation, the Nuggets may have done us a favor.
29. Brooklyn Nets (15-41; last week: 13)
They hired a general manager that isn’t Billy King, which is good.
They hired him five hours before the trade deadline. And you lose an hour flying from San Antonio to Brooklyn.
30. Philadelphia 76ers (8-47; last week: 14)
The Sixers reportedly considered dealing Jahlil Okafor for more draft picks but ultimately declined. SB Nation’s Paul Flannery credited the non-move for “saving us from another round of Sam Hinkie thinkpieces.”
Know where our bread is buttered, Paul, please. And thanks a lot, Sam. I’ve got kids to feed.
Back to the bottom for you, Philly.
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