Leading up to Feb. 7, 2019, there didn’t seem to be much wrong with the Toronto Raptors. They were 39-16. They were even sitting comfortably as the second seed in the Eastern Conference. They had the league’s sixth-best net rating. When his load wasn’t being managed, Kawhi Leonard made the Raptors look like a contender, so there wasn’t much need for an upgrade.
But an upgrade was available at the perfect time and at the perfect price. With the Grit-N-Grind era completely fallen apart in Memphis, so too had Marc Gasol’s trade value. Amazingly, all the former Defensive Player of the Year cost was Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright and C.J. Miles. Both Wright and Miles were out of the rotation, so trading them was no skin off Masaji Ujiri’s nose. But trading Valanciunas though had to sting a little.
Valanciunas was flourishing in his new role as the scoring spark off the Raptors’ bench. He also grew up as a player in Toronto, so there was sentiment involved. But it’s Marc Gasol. For all the good that Valanciunas brought to the court, Gasol, even with his prime fading, brought so much more.
As dumb as it sounds now, back then, there was an argument that Toronto didn’t really need Gasol. Could they have won the championship without him? Hard to say. They were really good before trading for him, but when they had an opportunity to get better, they took it and look where it got them.
It’s only been a year since this happened, so why bring up a story that’s still pretty fresh in our minds? Because the Boston Celtics now face a similar opportunity now that the Houston Rockets have made Clint Capela available.
Boston’s interest in Capela dates back to last summer, when our own Steve Kyler reported that the Celtics wanted him. So, no one should have been surprised when Adrian Wojnarowski followed up his recent report about Capela’s availability by adding that Boston was interested.
Since losing Al Horford and Aron Baynes, the Celtics’ supposed need for an upgrade at center has been well-documented and then some. Even though they may have arguably the league’s most talented quartet with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker and Gordon Hayward, the elephant in the room that is their five-spot seems too big for them not to acknowledge.
Or so the doubters say. In truth, the center by committee strategy that they’ve deployed has worked out just fine for them. Daniel Theis clearly took in a lot from the tutelage of Al Horford and Aron Baynes. While not a premier shot-blocker, he’s evolved into a dependable big in the pick roll on both sides of the ball as well as a rim protector.
Enes Kanter has been both the best rebounder Brad Stevens has ever had to coach and not a total disaster on the defensive end. Because of that, his scoring in the low-post has evolved into being more than empty stats. Then there’s Robert Williams III, who has been better than many expected, but he’s still quite raw — oddly more on the defensive end than the offensive.
Better, rookie Grant Williams’ IQ and muscle have recently helped him emerge as a promising small-ball center.
The Celtics’ offense was expected to be pretty good, which it has, averaging 112.4 points per 100 possessions, good for fifth overall in the league. The defense not so much, but they’ve outperformed the offense, allowing just 105.3 points per 100 possessions, good for third overall in the league.
Losing Horford and Baynes was supposed to hurt them on that side of the ball. It hasn’t. Their four centers aren’t necessarily the reason why the defense has improved from last year, but they’ve pulled their own weight. Given the minimal – arguably non-existent – expectations, they’ve impressed. Enough that maybe it’s not worth making a major shakeup mid-season. Even if someone as good as Clint Capela is on the market.
But it’s Clint Capela.
No matter how good the Celtics four-center combination might be, none of those players command the same respect that Capela does by himself. He’s averaging a near 14-point, 14-rebound double-double, as well as two blocks, and he’s making opponents to shoot 57 percent at the rim. He’s one of the league’s best rebounder and shot-blockers, one who has a reputation for shutting down elite big men in the playoffs.
He’s the perfect big to throw in the pick-and-roll and, best of all, he knows what his role is and won’t do anything that’s not in his bag. He thrived next to the likes of James Harden, Chris Paul and Eric Gordon because all of them could shoot the rock — but not so much with Russell Westbrook.
Capela is a clunky fit next to Westbrook because both are best used in the post and Westbrook plays at a faster pace than the center is used to. To better integrate Westbrook – since the Rockets have no other choice – they are aiming to add more spacing so he’ll have more room to operate. Capela is their most tradeable asset because of what he can do and his manageable $14.9 million deal.
And that’s the biggest appeal about Capela compared to the other bigs who have been mentioned as options for Boston. Other potentially available centers like Steven Adams and Andre Drummond are both being paid over $25 million, which, if the Celtics were interested, would mean they’d have to include Gordon Hayward or Marcus Smart, thus chomping a good chunk out of the team’s identity to fill a hole.
With Capela, that wouldn’t be the case. Boston wouldn’t have to include any of their best players in a deal, only needing to muster up $10 million to make a deal since they are under the tax. The Celtics also have multiple first-rounders this season to appease Houston who, reportedly, would later use those assets to entice a team dangling their wings on the open market.
But there is, of course, a risk.
Trading for Capela will lead to a huge tax bill if the Celtics aim to keep him long-term as well as Hayward and Tatum, which will certainly make for a stressful summer already. Currently, Capela’s dealing with a heel issue which could put him out for a while. If it becomes a long-term problem, trading for him could backfire in the worst way.
Of course, there was risk involved when Toronto traded Valanciunas for Gasol. The Raptors made that trade because they couldn’t rely on the former in good faith that he would carry his weight in the playoffs. They believed the latter could, but there was no guarantee that he would stay, how much he could produce or that he could take them to the next level.
Knowing the situation they had with Leonard, making that deal was necessary whether they won the championship or not. They took full advantage of their window.
Naturally, Boston could pass up on the opportunity to get Capela and take their chances with who they’ve got in their frontcourt now. The one issue is this: As effective as their guys have been, the playoffs will be a different ball game. There’s no telling what the likes of Theis or Kanter or the Williams Bros. will do against the stiffest competition in the postseason.
With a healthy Capela aboard, they’d go from a fringe outsider to a legitimate contender.
Danny Ainge has been criticized for holding his assets for too long in the past. Is he going to do the same with this Capela situation? And if he doesn’t, will it be the final piece or his biggest mistake?
NBA Daily: The Young, Western Conference Bubble
The race for the West’s final playoff spot may seem crowded, but the last two months make it clear that two teams are already ahead of the pack.
We all jump to conclusions too quickly, this space and this scribe most certainly included. Three months ago, five weeks into the NBA season, the Western Conference playoff bubble looked like it would be a race between the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves. That has assuredly not become the reality.
While the Kings and Suns can claim to still be in the playoff race, they would have to not only make up five-game deficits, but they would also each have to jump over four other teams to reach the postseason. The Timberwolves would delight at such challenges as they initiate a not-so-subtle tank with franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns sidelined for at least a few weeks with a fractured wrist.
Instead, the race to be swept by the Los Angeles Lakers has come down to a pair of up-and-comers, a perpetual deep threat and the NBA’s most consistent organization. Of all of them, it is the youngsters who are both currently playing the best and have the most control of their playoff hopes relative to their competition.
Between the current No. 8-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, the Portland Trail Blazers (3 games back), New Orleans Pelicans (3.5) and San Antonio Spurs (4), the next six weeks will feature eight key games. Five of those will include either the Grizzlies or the Pelicans or, in two instances, both.
That pair of matchups is still a month out, but they warrant circling already, nonetheless. Memphis and New Orleans have been playing at a high level for two-plus months now, and by the time they play two games within four nights in late March — when the basketball world is largely distracted by the NCAA Tournament — the two inexperienced teams may have completely separated from Portland and San Antonio.
After starting 1-5, 5-13 and then 10-19, the Grizzlies have gone 18-9 since Dec. 21. The Pelicans have matched that record exactly, down to the date, since starting even worse than Memphis did, bottoming out at 7-23 before finding an uptick long before Zion Williamson found the court. Winning two-thirds of your games for two months is a stretch with a sample size large enough to make it clear: Neither Memphis nor New Orleans should be dismissed in this playoff chase.
Their early-season profiles were examples of young teams sliding right back into the lottery — and there was absolutely no indication a surge was coming.
|Offensive Rating||106.4 – No. 23||106.8 – No. 21|
|Defensive Rating||111.7 – No. 23||113.5 – No. 27|
Through Dec. 20; via nba.com.
Then, for whatever reason, things changed. They changed in every way and in ways so drastically that one cannot help but wonder what could come next for the teams led by the top-two picks from last summer’s draft.
|Offensive Rating||111.9 – No. 15||115.1 – No. 4|
|Defensive Rating||109.3 – No. 11||110.3 – No. 13|
Since Dec. 21, through Feb. 23; via nba.com.
In a further coincidence of records and timing, the Blazers and Spurs have both gone 13-16 since Dec. 21.
If all four teams in the thick of things out west continue at these two-month winning rates for another month, then Portland and San Antonio will have drifted out of the playoff conversation before Williamson and Ja Morant meet for a second time. Of course, those rates would keep New Orleans a few games back of Memphis; the latter has 14 games, compared to 12, before March 21, so the gap in the standings would actually expand to an even four games.
If the Pelicans can just pick up a game or two before then, though, they have already beaten the Grizzlies twice this season. Doing so twice more that week would just about send New Orleans into the playoffs – at which point, perhaps Williamson could steal a game from LeBron James to put a finishing coda on his rookie season.
NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southwest Division
David Yapkowitz finishes Basketball Insiders’ Stretch Run series with an overview of the Southwest Division.
We’ve hit that point in the NBA season approaching the final stretch of games before the playoffs roll around in April. The trade deadline has come and gone, the buyout market is wearing thin and most teams have loaded up and made their final roster moves in anticipation of the postseason.
Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking a look at each team — division by division– at what they need to do to get ready for the playoffs, or lack thereof. Looking at the Southwest Division, this was a division that used to be one of the toughest in the league.
It still is for the most part. The Texas triangle of the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs was no joke and hell for opposing teams on a road trip. Those are still a couple of formidable teams, but with the exception of the Rockets, it’s not quite near the level of yesteryear.
The Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans are a pair of young, up-and-coming teams that will give you 100 percent every night. While Memphis sits firmly in the eighth spot in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on the outside looking in. Here’s a look at how each team might fare in the stretch run.
The Houston Rockets have been the best team in the Southwest all season long, and all that remains for them is playoff positioning. They currently sit in fourth place in the West, giving them home-court advantage in the first round, but they could just as easily slip a bit with the Utah Jazz essentially tied with them record-wise in the standings and the Oklahoma City Thunder a mere two games back.
The Dallas Mavericks have taken a huge leap this season behind Luka Doncic, who is rapidly becoming one of the best players in the league. They currently sit in seventh place in the West and a return to the postseason is in the cards for the Mavericks.
The rest of the teams in the Southwest is where things get a little interesting. The Grizzlies have been one of the surprises of the season, as they’ve defied expectations and are firmly entrenched in the playoff race out West. They have a three-game lead on the Portland Trail Blazers and a four-game lead on the San Antonio Spurs.
Out of the Grizzlies’ final 26 games, 15 of them come against teams over .500, more than either the Blazers or the Spurs. 14 of those final 26 are also on the road, again, more than the Blazers or the Spurs. They also play both the Spurs and Blazers one more time this season. If the Grizzlies end up making the playoffs, it will be very well earned.
The Spurs are knocking on the door, and they have one more game against the Grizzlies which could prove to be very meaningful. This is a team that has been one of the standard-bearers in the league for success over the past decade. Their streak of playoff appearances is in serious jeopardy.
They’ve won two of their last three games, however, and out of their final 26 games, 15 of those are at home, where they are 14-12. Based on how the Grizzlies are playing though, a close to .500 record at home probably isn’t going to cut it. They’re going to need to pick it up a bit over the next month if they want to keep their playoff streak intact. A lot can happen between now and then, and the Grizzlies do have a tough remaining schedule, but it looks as if San Antonio will miss the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.
The final team in the Southwest is the Pelicans, boosted by the return of prized rookie and No.1 draft pick Zion Williamson. Prior to the start of the season, the Pelicans were looked at as a team that could possibly contend for the eighth seed in the West. Then Williamson got hurt and things changed.
But the team managed to stay afloat in his absence, and as it stands, they’re only three-and-a-half games back of the Grizzlies with 26 games left to play. Out of the bottom three teams in the division, it’s the Pelicans who have the easiest schedule.
Out of those 25 games, only seven of them come against teams over .500. They are, however, just about split with home and away games. New Orleans is 8-2 over their past 10 games, better than the Grizzlies and Spurs. If Memphis falters down the stretch due to its tough schedule, and the Pelicans start gaining a little bit of steam, things could get interesting in the final few weeks.
In all likelihood, the Pelicans probably won’t make the playoffs as not only do they have to catch up to the Grizzlies, but the Spurs and Blazers as well. But it certainly will be fun to watch them try.
There are some big storylines in the Southwest Division worth following as we begin the final run to the postseason. Can the young Grizzlies defy expectations and make a surprise return to the playoffs? Will the Spurs get their playoff streak snapped and finally look to hit the reset button after nearly two decades of excellence? Can the Pelicans, buoyed by Williamson’s return, make a strong final push?
Tune in to what should be fun final stretch in the Southwest.
NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southeast Division
With the All-Star Break behind us, the final stretch of NBA games has commenced. Quinn Davis takes a look at a few teams in the Southeast Division that have a chance at making the dance.
Well, that was fast.
With the NBA All-Star break in the rearview, there are now fewer than 30 games to play for all 30 NBA teams. In other words, time is running out for certain teams to improve their seeding in the conference.
Here at Basketball Insiders, we will be looking at a certain subset of teams that are right on the border of making or missing the playoffs. In this edition, the focus will be on the Southeast Division.
The Southeast features three teams — the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards — operating in the lower-middle-class of the NBA. These three will be slugging it out over the next month-and-a-half for the right to meet the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.
The two remaining teams are the Miami HEAT and Atlanta Hawks. As this is being written, the former is comfortably in the playoffs at 35-20, while the latter is comfortably gathering more ping pong balls at 16-41.
In this space, the focus will be on the three bubble teams. The Magic are currently frontrunners for the eighth seed, but the Wizards and Hornets are within striking distance if things were to go awry.
Led by head coach Steve Clifford, the Magic have ground their way to the eighth seed behind an eighth-ranked defense. Lanky wing Aaron Gordon is the standout, helping the Magic execute their scheme of walling off the paint. The Magic only allow 31.3 percent of opponent shots to come at the rim, putting them in 89th percentile in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.
Following a post-break loss to Dallas Mavericks, the Magic sit at 24-32 and three games up on the ninth-seeded Wizards. While a three-game margin doesn’t sound like much, that is a sizable cushion with only 26 games to play. Basketball-Reference gives the Magic a 97.4 percent chance to make the playoffs.
The Magic have the third-easiest remaining schedule out of Eastern Conference teams. They have very winnable games coming against the Bulls, Hornets, Cavaliers, Knicks and Pistons. They also have multiple games coming against the Brooklyn Nets, the team they trail by only 1.5 games for the seventh seed.
The Magic are prone, however, to dropping games against the league’s bottom-feeders. It can be difficult to string together wins with an offense this sluggish. The Markelle Fultz experiment has added some spark in that department, but his lack of an outside shot still leaves the floor cramped.
After a quick analysis of the schedule, the most likely scenario appears to be a 12-14 record over the last 26 games, putting the Magic at 36-46 come season’s end. A record like that should not be allowed anywhere near playoff basketball, but it would probably be enough to meet the Bucks in round one.
If the Magic go 12-14, that would leave the Wizards, fresh off a loss to J.B. Bickerstaff and the Cleveland Cavaliers, needing to go 17-11 over their last 28 games. They will need to finish one game ahead as the Magic hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.
The Wizards finishing that strong becomes even more farfetched when you consider their remaining schedule. They have the second-toughest slate from here on out, per Basketball-Reference.
The Wizards do have a trump card in Bradley Beal, who is the best player among the bubble teams in the East. He has now scored 25 points or more in 13 straight games and has been the driving force behind the Wizards staying in the race.
He has also picked up his defense a bit following his All-Star snub in an effort to silence his critics. The increased focus on that end is nice, but it would’ve been a little nicer if it had been a part of his game earlier in this season when the Wizards were by far the worst defense in the league.
Even if Beal goes bonkers, it is hard to see a path for this Wizards team to sneak in outside of a monumental collapse in Orlando. Looking at their schedule, it would take some big upsets to even get to 10 wins over their last 28. Their most likely record to finish the season is 8-20 if all games go to the likely favorites.
The Wizards’ offense has been impressive all season, but injuries and a porous defense have been too much to overcome.
The Hornets, meanwhile, trail the Wizards by 1.5 games and the Magic by 4.5 games. They have won their last three in a row to put themselves back in this race, but they still have an uphill climb.
The Hornets also may have raised the proverbial white flag by waiving two veterans in Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The goal coming into this season was never to make the playoffs, so they are likely more interested in developing young talent over these last 27 games.
If the Magic do play up to their usual levels and go 12-14, it would require the Hornets to go 18-9 to finish the season against the sixth-toughest remaining schedule in the East.
Devonte’ Graham and his three-point shooting have been a bright spot for the Hornets, but it would take some otherworldly performances from him and Terry Rozier down the stretch to put together a record like that. Basketball-Reference gives this a 0.02 percent chance of happening (cue the Jim Carrey GIF).
Barring a miracle, the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference are locked in place. The only questions remaining are how seeds 2-6 will play out, and whether the Magic can catch the Nets for the seventh spot.
The Wizards will fight to the end, but it is unlikely they make up any ground given the level of opponents they will see over the next six weeks. The Hornets, meanwhile, are more likely to fight for lottery odds.
At least the playoffs should be exciting.
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