Nearly every NBA team had an eventful trade deadline, but none more so than the squads currently duking it out for Eastern Conference supremacy.
The Philadelphia 76ers cashed in a bunch of their chips for Tobias Harris. The Milwaukee Bucks dealt four second-round picks for stretch big Nikola Mirotic. The Toronto Raptors parted with Jonas Valanciunas in exchange for Memphis Grizzlies' Marc Gasol. And the Boston Celtics stood pat, secure in the knowledge they currently have the inside track to trade for Anthony Davis in the offseason.
Each team can pose distinct problems for one another, and all four can reasonably convince themselves that the East is theirs for the taking. They've all been given identical odds of making it to the Finals. The jockeying between them - for playoff seeding during the regular-season stretch run, and eventually for spots in the East finals - is going to be a bloodbath. Here's where each team stands in the conference hierarchy after the deadline:
Milwaukee has been far and away the best team in the East all season, and the addition of Mirotic isn't likely to change that.
Mirotic is a 6-foot-10 gunner who can pop, spot up, run the break, bust smaller defenders in the post, rebound, and credibly guard both frontcourt positions. His accuracy comes and goes, but crucially, defenses respect his shot. He's shooting nearly 37 percent on 7.2 3-point attempts per game this season. For evidence of how effectively he can play off of a defense-warping, rim-running gazelle like Giannis Antetokounmpo, look no further than the work he did alongside Davis in New Orleans.
The offensive fit is more evident, but the added defensive flexibility he offers the Bucks is important, too. Brook Lopez has been outstanding in the basket-proximal role he's been asked to play, but his defensive one-dimensionality will make him vulnerable in the wrong playoff matchup. Mirotic's ability to play the five in spots gives the Bucks a means to adapt without sacrificing spacing or shot-taking.
The team with the NBA's best record and net rating just snagged another snug-fitting role player who will both complement and be complemented by the talent around him. The remaining three teams can really be rearranged in any order, but the Bucks' place in the pecking order is indisputable. For now, at least, they're a cut above.
The Raptors started the season like gangbusters, but they haven't been the same since Jonas Valanciunas suffered a dislocated thumb nearly two months ago. On Thursday, the day he was set to return to action, Valanciunas was shipped off to Memphis for Gasol. The Raptors' bet is that Gasol can give them everything they were getting from Valanciunas, and more.
It's a decent gamble, even if Valanciunas' per-minute production has outstripped Gasol's this season. On top of setting similarly solid screens, the sweet-passing Spaniard introduces an entirely new element to a Raptors offense that often suffers from a lack of imagination, particularly at the end of games. Throughout this six-season run of relevance, Toronto has never had a playmaking big man; no ace passer out of the post, no elbow operator who thinks the game on Gasol's level. Pair him with a pocket-pass savant in Kyle Lowry, and he should get plenty of clean looks in the pick-and-pop and have ample opportunity to scan a buffet of options in four-on-three scenarios. Gasol is a hub the Raptors can play through when they start to get stuck in mud.
Defensively, it's unclear if this will be the upgrade it looks like on paper, though it likely won't be a downgrade, either. By the numbers, Valanciunas' rim-protection has been far better this season (though he's played largely against bench groups), and while Gasol's IQ can make up for a lot, his flagging recovery speed hampers his impact as a help defender. He's also not a great defensive rebounder, which has already been an issue for Toronto all season.
It's impossible to know where to rank the Raptors in this group because their indicators are all over the place; they match up well against the revamped version of Philadelphia, but have been exposed repeatedly by the Bucks, and have had their struggles with the Celtics. Gasol likely won't plug all the holes the Bucks have managed to lay bare, but his outside-in skills give Toronto a different dimension, a bit more dynamism, and a bit less predictability. And though Joel Embiid has narrowed the gap considerably, Kawhi Leonard remains the second-best player among these teams. The Raptors' floor was going to be high no matter what, but they've nudged their ceiling higher.
This team still has so much to prove. The Sixers are currently fifth in the conference with a point differential indicative of a 32-22 team. They have a losing record on the road, a losing record against .500-or-better teams, and, most damningly, a 1-6 record against the other three teams in this group.
But the current version of the Sixers is different. Although there are reasons to be down on the Harris trade, none of them have to do with what it means for Philadelphia this season. He simply makes them better. It's tough to shake the nightmarish feeling of having to match up with this team and its ridiculous new starting five, stocked as it is with size, speed, playmaking, and, yes, shooting.
We still need to see how it looks. The Sixers have a lot of mouths to feed, and some flighty personalities to manage. Their depth is still an issue. For all the matchup problems they can pose, the other three teams on this list all have the personnel to counter them effectively. Embiid still hasn't quite solved the Al Horford puzzle, and Gasol has given him trouble in the past, too. The Celtics have consistently managed to neutralize Ben Simmons, and Leonard has straight-up snatched his soul when they've squared off. So, it may be naive to think Harris is the key to unlocking this whole jumbled roster.
But, honestly, he might be. He's not as good as Jimmy Butler, but he's more of a shapeshifter, which is what the Sixers need. He'll give everyone else a little bit more room to breathe. He and J.J. Redick can engage two defenders at a time and steer attention away from Philly's bulldozing brutes. Philadelphia can trot out staggered combinations of their starting lineup (Butler-Harris-Embiid, Redick-Harris-Simmons), and mix and match until they find what works. They have too many options for them to continue to struggle against these teams.
It feels all kinds of wrong to have the Celtics at the bottom here. With the amount of talent on the roster, the fact they have the second-best net rating in the conference, and the fact they've gone 5-2 this season against the Bucks, Raptors, and Sixers, one would think they'd be battling for a higher spot on this list.
Again, the margin between teams two through four are interchangeably slim. But when the rest of your rivals are moving forward, standing still means falling behind. The Celtics had good reason not to make a deadline move; they have bigger fish to fry this summer. But the reality is, in the meantime, their conference foes may have passed them by.
The Celtics have been taking care of business in recent weeks, but they've also been fattening up on a soft stretch of schedule, and just lost at home to the post-apocalyptic husk of the Lakers. Kyrie Irving is suddenly sending weird signals about his offseason intentions, and there's no telling how the team's young prospects will react to the assumption they're going to be dispatched to New Orleans in a few months. Perhaps most concerning, Gordon Hayward still isn't remotely back; everything he does looks painfully deliberate, and his confidence perpetually seems to be teetering on a razor's edge.
Boston is good enough to reach the Finals in spite of all that. Irving continues to play out of his mind. Horford, the team's single biggest matchup advantage, finally looks like himself again after a bumpy start to the season. Jaylen Brown has come roaring back to life. Marcus Smart has been one of the half-dozen most impactful defenders in the league, and he's apparently a 38-percent 3-point shooter now.
The bottom line, though, is that as long as Irving wants to re-sign in the offseason, and as long as Davis and Tatum don't injure themselves in the meantime, this season isn't nearly as urgent for the Celtics as it is for the other top teams in the East. The trade deadline proved that.