With the All-Star Game now in the rearview mirror, the NBA has passed the season’s halfway mark. With only a couple of months before the playoffs, many teams have their eyes on the rapidly approaching March 25 trade deadline as an opportunity to bolster their rosters.
But, for some teams, this trade deadline is more necessary than optional, as a key role player could be what they need to genuinely compete come playoff time. If they are aggressive at the trade deadline, these four teams could legitimately change the outlook of their franchise this postseason.
Portland Trail Blazers
Damian Lillard has been one of the league’s best for many years now and has proven time and time again that he is talented enough to compete for a title. But Lillard is also 30-years-old — and the Portland Trail Blazers are running out of time to capitalize on his generational talent.
Portland is a good team this year, currently sitting at 21-14 and fourth in the Western Conference. But they’ll need to be great to even hope to reach the NBA Finals.
The Trail Blazers have one of the most dynamic offenses in the league, even with C.J. McCollum out due to injury. The problem resides in their defense, which is one of the worst in the NBA. Portland is 28th in the NBA in defensive rating, beating out only the New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings. The Trail Blazers attempted to bolster their defense over the offseason when they acquired Robert Covington from the Houston Rockets, but so far, his impact has been minimal.
If Portland is serious about beating teams come playoff time, they have to improve their defense. While the inevitable return of McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic should help, it won’t be enough to take their defense from bad to good. There are plenty of talented defenders rumored to be on the market — Harrison Barnes, P.J. Tucker and Otto Porter Jr., etc. — that could be had for a reasonable price and make a world of difference in Portland.
Whomever they go after, the Trail Blazers have to go after them now. Otherwise, their chance at a title might fizzle out before the postseason even starts.
Golden State Warriors
Like Lillard, Stephen Curry is playing at an unbelievably high level but isn’t getting any younger. The Golden State Warriors must do what they can to make use of the soon-to-be 33-year-old Curry’s prime while he’s still in it.
The Warriors problem this season has been its offense. Outside of Curry, the team lacks a genuine scoring threat. Draymond Green isn’t the same player he was three years ago and is averaging just 5.7 points per game. Andrew Wiggins has had a good season, averaging 17 points per game, but he can’t create his own offense like Klay Thompson could alongside Curry. The Warriors’ lack of scoring outside of Curry is reflected in their offensive rating without Curry on the court; 21st overall at 109.8 points per 100 possessions, their offensive rating plummets to 101.9 when Curry hits the bench, per Basketball-Reference, the worst mark in the NBA by a significant margin.
With a record of 19-18, it’s not a given that Golden State will even make the postseason, but adding an additional scoring threat to the roster would improve those odds significantly. And, if they truly don’t want to waste another year of Curry’s prime, Golden State is going to have to make a big splash at the trade deadline.
Compared to their Eastern Conference rivals, it’s clear the Boston Celtics have fallen a step behind. After a brutal month of February, the Celtics are 19-17 and fourth in the East, trailing the Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers.
To get back into the conversation of the best in the conference, the Celtics need to address their lack of quality depth. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have been dynamite, with both of them averaging over 24 points per game, but it has been hard to come by points elsewhere on the roster. Only two other players, Marcus Smart and Kemba Walker, are averaging more than 10 points per game, while both have struggled with injury and missed a large portion of games this season.
The center position in particular has been a thorn in Boston’s side all season. The trio of Daniel Theis, Tristan Thompson and Robert Williams are averaging 9.3, 7.9 and 6.3 points per game, respectively, over a combined 63.2 minutes per game. That output isn’t nearly good enough, especially on a team hoping to compete for a title. To turn their season around, Danny Ainge and the Celtics must push their chips to the middle of the table; a move for someone like Nikola Vucevic — and his 24.6 points per game — might not only turn their season around, but help cover for their lack of depth as well.
Beyond Vucevic, depth options like Barnes or Thaddeus Young could be had as well and, while they might not have as great an impact as Vucevic would, they could still make some difference and would come significantly cheaper.
It’s felt like the Denver Nuggets have been just one piece away from contending at the top of the Western Conference for years now. And that’s proven true again this season.
Sixth in the Western Conference with a record of 21-15, Denver has gotten exceptional play from their center and MVP candidate Nikola Jokic, while Jamal Murray has rebounded from his poor start to the year. But one more elite player on this roster could bring Denver into the title conversation.
Like the Trail Blazers, the Nuggets’ most significant issues have come on the defensive end. While not nearly as drastic as Portland, Denver’s defense has been mediocre at best this season, with a defensive rating of 112.1, 14th in the NBA. Further, the Nuggets lack someone capable of guarding, or at least slowing down, the elite wings that they’d inevitably run into in a playoff series, such as LeBron James, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. With the loss of Jerami Grant, JaMychal Green was brought in to fulfill that role, but he’s struggled. Likewise, while he has taken some encouraging steps as a defender, Michael Porter Jr. just isn’t ready to consistently guard those players in a postseason series.
The Nuggets would stand to benefit greatly from the addition of a wing like Barnes, Porter Jr. or Tucker, who could assist Green in defending those elite players come playoff time.
The trade deadline is approaching faster by the day — and these four teams are just a few that could benefit from being aggressive in the trade market. The league is flush with talent this season, but one big trade could be what stands in the way of these teams and an NBA title.
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