The Los Angeles Lakers appear to potentially be in position to win with LeBron James next season while the Cleveland Cavaliers appear to be better equipped to win with him now.
But, ironically, the biggest winners of the NBA’s 2018 trade deadline might be two teams that didn’t didn’t execute a trade.
In the long run, the Boston Celtics and Houston Rockets may have done more to help their championship odds than the other contenders.
We’ll find out soon enough.
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As he surpassed the 1,100 games played mark, the sun has presumably began to set on the career of LeBron James. His reign atop the Eastern Conference—now seven years strong—seemed to genuinely be in jeopardy.
Even without Gordon Hayward, led by Kyrie Irving (another irony), the upstart Celtics have appeared to be a team well-equipped to outlast the Cavaliers over the course of what would probably be a long playoff series if the two met. As a unit, the Celtics have a true superstar in Irving, a brilliant young head coach in Brad Stevens and a team that both applies itself defensively and uses it spry, young legs to its advantage.
Already appearing to be a formidable threat to the Cavs, the Celtics essentially added Greg Monroe for nothing.
Now in his eighth year, Monroe opened eyes during the first five years of his career as a member of the Detroit Pistons. A gifted back-to-basket scorer, Monroe has become a difference-maker on the offensive side of the ball, particularly because he sees the floor well from the post and is an above-average passer for a man at his position.
After signing with the Milwaukee Bucks in July 2015, Monroe was eventually traded to the Phoenix Suns in the deal that saw Eric Bledsoe shipped to Milwaukee. The Suns eventually bought out his contract before he landed in Boston.
One of the biggest things the Celtics have had working to their advantage is the selflessness with which they play the game.
Irving is the alpha and the omega of what the team does on the offensive end, but at the very least, Monroe is a weapon that can be deployed and one that can be effectively utilized. With Al Horford’s newfound three-point shooting ability, the two can share the floor and give Stevens another rotation piece who will further fortify the strength of the already formidable squad.
In Boston, the best just got a little better.
Meanwhile, in Houston, a similar story can be told. Led by MVP-caliber play from James Harden, the Rockets will enter play on February 11 just one game behind the Golden State Warriors for the top seed in the Western Conference.
For the Rockets, the recipe for success has been predicated on utilizing both Harden and Chris Paul as creators and, of course, converting on three-point opportunities. Importantly, the Rockets have improved immensely on the defensive side of the ball and seem to be the only Western Conference team that has a legitimate shot at toppling the Warriors, who are attempting to win the conference for a fourth consecutive season.
Now, the Rockets are getting some extra help as Joe Johnson will reportedly sign with Houston after presumably clearing waivers on Monday.
Even at the ripe old age of 36 years old, Johnson is still an effective player who’s spent the majority of his career being one of the few perimeter players in the league who has been effective in isolation situations, with his back to the basket and in catch-and-shoot scenarios.
Although Johnson has been showing obvious signs of decline, finding oneself in new surroundings—and importantly, on one’s own volition—often has a way of rejuvenating players who seemed to be over the hill.
In the past, we’ve seen the positive effects on such a move with the likes of Rajon Rondo and Pau Gasol. After falling out of favor with Rick Carlisle, Rondo was thought to be damaged goods. While he was never able to live up to the expectations that his brilliance as a member of the Boston Celtics caused, for the Sacramento Kings, he managed to end the 2015-16 season as the league leader in assists per game.
Rondo hasn’t been and probably won’t ever be the player that helped the Celtics become an Eastern Conference powerhouse, but he certainly can be a piece that can contribute in a major way.
Similarly, after Gasol was thought to be regressing to the point of irrelevancy with the Los Angeles Lakers, he signed with the Chicago Bulls in July 2014. Even at 34 years of age, Gasol was named an Eastern Conference All-Star in 2015 and, at 35 years old, again in 2016.
In some small way, Rondo and Gasol have both previously shown that rejuvenation is a real thing. When an aging veteran or a player who otherwise seems to have lost his mojo finds himself in a situation where he feels that he has something to play for again, it can work wonders for his productivity.
With Greg Monroe joining the Celtics and Joe Johnson joining the Rockets, the two teams attempting to disrupt what would be a fourth consecutive NBA Finals matchup featuring Stephen Curry and LeBron James appear much better equipped to do exactly that.
* * * * * *
Everything that happens before the All-Star break has been considered to be the “first half” of the NBA season. Truth be told, though, traditionally, most teams have played somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 games before the midseason classic.
This season, in an attempt to make a game schedule that was friendlier to the bodies of the players, the league began the season about a week earlier than they have traditionally.
As a result, by the time the All-Star break comes around, the Celtics will have played 59 games while the Rockets will have played 57.
Referring to everything that happens after the All-Star break as the “second half” of the season becomes quite inappropriate; each team will be sprinting toward the postseason with only about 25 games remaining to determine how best to fit their new weapons into their existing collection of talent.
And as that sprint begins, as the Lakers and Cavaliers each emerged from the trade deadline with renewed hopes of accomplishing their existing goals, it is the Celtics and Rockets that may be laughing last.
Interestingly enough, neither team completed a trade on deadline day.
Oh, the irony.
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