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Sizing Up the Western Conference After the Trade Deadline

The dust has settled from a busy deadline, so here’s a look at where teams stand in the West.

Jesse Blancarte profile picture
Updated 10 months ago on
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By now, you should have a pretty good grasp of what trades were made right before last Thursday’s trade deadline. If not, be sure to check out our trade grades by our own Ben Dowsett.

Altogether, nine Western Conference teams made at least one trade, including several teams that are competing for the eighth and final playoff spot. Let’s take a look at the distribution of power in the West now that the dust has settled from the trade deadline, starting with the teams that arguably improved the most.

Oklahoma City Thunder –

The Thunder participated in a three-team deal that landed Enes Kanter, D.J. Augustin, Steve Novak and Kyle Singler in Oklahoma City. Our own Nate Duncan broke down the trade and what it means for this season and beyond for the Thunder.

The Thunder are currently 32-25 and eighth in the Western Conference. Kevin Durant is again relegated to the bench after undergoing a second foot procedure to alleviate pain and discomfort in his foot. It’s unclear how much time Durant will miss, but fortunately for the Thunder, Russell Westbrook is playing some of the best ball of his career. Also, the added depth of Kanter and Singler helps to offset the hand injury to center Steven Adams and Durant, while Augustin should strengthen their second unit as well.

The Thunder’s remaining schedule is rather manageable. Oklahoma City has two remaining three-game road trips, which each include games against some non-playoff teams (such as the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz). There are five remaining back-to-back games, and no brutal four-games-in-five-night stretches. The toughest stretch remaining for the Thunder starts on March 5 and ends on March 22. During that two-week period, the Thunder will face the Chicago Bulls, Toronto Raptors, Los Angeles Clippers, Minnesota Timberwolves, Dallas Mavericks, Boston Celtics, Atlanta Hawks and Miami HEAT.

The Thunder have won nine of their last 10 games despite Durant’s injury issues and are now three full games ahead of the reeling Phoenix Suns, who have won just two of their last 10 games. With Westbrook currently playing better than just about anyone else in the league, the addition of three solid rotation players in Kanter, Augustin and Singler, and the removal of Reggie Jackson and the chemistry issues he was reportedly causing, the Thunder are well positioned to make the playoffs. If they do, they will be one of the scariest eighth seeds ever, as our own Moke Hamilton explained on Monday.

Portland Trail Blazers –

The Portland Trail Blazers made their move early last Thursday, acquiring swingman Arron Afflalo and Alonzo Gee from the Denver Nuggets for Will Barton, Victor Claver, Thomas Robinson, a 2016 first-round pick (lottery protected) and a second-round pick. The Trail Blazers bolstered their backcourt with one of the best two-way wings in the league, while not giving up a single significant rotation player. The real value given up here is the 2016 first-round pick, but the Trail Blazers are all-in on winning a championship this season, which makes future assets expendable.

The Trail Blazers, currently 36-19 (fourth in the West), have dealt with significant injuries this season. The most recent injury concern surrounded star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who tore a ligament in his left thumb a few weeks ago and recently injured his right thumb. To his credit, Aldridge is playing through these injuries and is still performing at his usual All-Star level.

Despite the injuries, the Trail Blazers have been one of the most consistent teams in the league this season. However, they have had a tough stretch lately, winning just four of their last 10 games. They are now just one game ahead of the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Clippers in the loss column and are now at risk of dropping out of the top four in the West.

The remaining schedule isn’t a walk in the park for Portland, but there aren’t too many back-to-back games, though they do have a five-game road trip coming up (March 15-21). Over the next month, Portland will play some tough teams, including the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, Detroit Pistons, Toronto Raptors, Washington Wizards, Miami HEAT, Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors. Portland is capable of beating each of these teams, but Aldridge needs to continue playing at a high level despite his injuries.

Make no mistake about it, the Blazers are true contenders in the West. They don’t have the depth that other Western Conference contenders have, but they have a top-10 offense and have been one of the best defensive teams in the league (fourth best, per Nylon Calculus). Now, they should be even better on both ends with the addition of Afflalo. Injuries continue to be an issue, but credit Portland for keeping pace in the tough Western Conference despite some setbacks.

Houston Rockets

Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey made one of the sneakier good moves at the trade deadline, acquiring rookie K.J. McDaniels from the Philadelphia 76ers for Isaiah Canaan and a second-round draft pick.

McDaniels is likely not the difference between the Rockets winning a championship or not this season, but he is a nice pickup, especially for what the Rockets gave up. At worse, McDaniels is an athletic wing-defender who can block shots at an extremely high rate. The Rockets also acquired Pablo Prigioni to add some depth at the point guard position.

However, the biggest concern for the Rockets is the health of Dwight Howard. Howard has been sidelined for weeks with a knee injury that has plagued him all season. Josh Smith and Donatas Motiejūnas have played well in place of Howard, but the Rockets will need their star center to make a deep postseason run.

James Harden is playing at an MVP-level right now, but he’ll need Howard healthy to slow down some of the high-powered Western Conference teams in the postseason.

Phoenix Suns –

The Phoenix Suns were put in a tough spot by former point guard Goran Dragic. With the trade deadline approaching, Dragic informed the Suns that he would not re-sign with Phoenix after the season, insisting that he wanted to join a team where he was the lead guard. With this development, Suns general manager Ryan McDonough had to work the phones and try to trade Dragic, or risk losing him for nothing in free agency.

McDonough eventually traded the Dragic brothers to the Miami HEAT for Danny Granger, John Salmons, Justin Hamilton, a 2017 first-round pick (top-seven protected) and a 2021 first-round pick. The real value here are the future draft picks. The Suns also acquired Brandon Knight, Kendall Marshall, Marcus Thornton and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2016 first-round draft pick in a three-team deal that sent out Isaiah Thomas, Tyler Ennis, Miles Plumlee and the rights to the Los Angeles Lakers’ 2015 first-round draft pick (top-five protected).

This is a lot of movement from the Suns, who were in a tough position. It remains to be seen how competitive the Suns can be moving forward considering the considerable changes made to the roster, the loss of Dragic and the recent stretch of poor play. The Suns have won just two of their last 10 games, and are now behind both the Oklahoma City Thunder and New Orleans Pelicans in the playoff race.

And unfortunately for the Suns, the remaining schedule looks pretty challenging (after playing the 21st easiest schedule thus far, according to John Hollinger’s Power Rankings system). Starting tonight, the Suns will face the Denver Nuggets, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs in three nights, which are all crucial games considering the fact that the Thunder are starting to create considerable distance in the playoff race. After that, the Suns go on a four-game road trip where they will face the Miami HEAT, Orlando Magic, Brooklyn Nets and Cleveland Cavaliers in the span of six days. They’ll then take on the dominating Golden State Warriors at home on March 9, which will be a brutal matchup for Phoenix. There is a little relief after facing the Warriors, but not much. In short, the Suns are going to need to get on a hot streak now, and take down many of the best teams in the league to keep pace in the West (while adjusting to the recent moves on the fly).

McDonough did well in acquiring some future draft picks and a nice player in Knight to partner up with Eric Bledsoe. But considering the team’s recent performance, the difficulties integrating new players and the overall lack of chemistry that we saw last season (as Dragic and Bledsoe adjusted to playing together), it’s hard to imagine the fast-paced Suns making the postseason.

Sacramento Kings –

The Sacramento Kings made one move, trading guard Ramon Sessions for Andre Miller. Miller is a savvy veteran who probably isn’t much of an upgrade over Sessions, but he has prior experience playing for newly hired Kings head coach George Karl.

The trade makes sense considering how poorly Sessions has played this season. But the Kings are just 19-35 and are just too far behind in the standings to have any reasonable hope of making the playoffs this season.

Karl has a lot of talent to work with moving forward and so the remainder of this season is about developing players, integrating new offensive and defensive systems and evaluating the team’s needs before entering the offseason.

New Orleans Pelicans –

The New Orleans Pelicans got involved in the Miami HEAT–Phoenix Suns deal and acquired Norris Cole and Shawne Williams. The Pelicans waived Williams (who was picked up by the Detroit Pistons), but Cole has stepped in to help fill the void left by Jrue Holiday, who is still out with a stress fracture in his leg.

Cole, 26, has career averages of 6.3 points, 2.6 assists and 1.8 rebounds per game. He is not a great shooter or playmaker, but he has value coming off the bench. In two games with the Pelicans, Cole is contributing an encouraging 13.5 points, 4.5 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game.

The Pelicans are currently 29-27 and just two games behind the Thunder in the loss column. The Pelicans have won five of their last 10 games, a win-rate that needs to improve if the team hopes to keep pace with the streaking Thunder. The biggest issue for the Pelicans right now is the health of star forward Anthony Davis. Davis re-injured his shoulder on Saturday against the Miami HEAT and is expected to be sidelined for one-to-two weeks. In addition, Ryan Anderson suffered a sprained MCL in the same game and is expected be out for two-to-four weeks.

Losing both Davis and Anderson are big blows for a New Orleans team that has been trying to keep pace in the West without Holiday. Adding Cole was a nice pickup considering what the Pelicans gave up, but he won’t be the difference between the Pelicans making the playoffs or not. The health of Holiday, Davis and Anderson is what will likely determine whether the Pelicans can take over the eighth seed before the regular season ends. But they may need some help from the Thunder, who are streaking even with Durant’s lingering foot issues.

Minnesota Timberwolves –

The Minnesota Timberwolves have several veteran players that teams were interested in trading for. While the team did move Mo Williams (and Corey Brewer earlier in the season) team president and head coach Flip Saunders didn’t want future assets back in exchange for Thaddeus Young. Instead, Saunders just traded Young for Kevin Garnett.

Acquiring Garnett was more about bringing back the former face of the franchise for ceremonial and leadership purposes than making a difference on the court. Garnett, who spent 12 seasons with the Timberwolves before being traded to the Boston Celtics, is expected to add veteran leadership to a group of young, talented players, including Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng and Ricky Rubio.

Garnett is a no-nonsense, fierce competitor and his influence could certainly help the younger players in their development. However, his on-court contributions are limited at this point in his career, and with a 12-43 record, the Timberwolves have long been out of the playoff race.

Denver Nuggets –

The Denver Nuggets are the team everyone expected to be most active last Thursday. Entering this season, the Nuggets had playoff aspirations, which quickly faded because of poor play, injuries and chemistry issues.

The Nuggets ended up trading Afflalo to Portland for Barton, Claver, Robinson, a 2016 first-round pick (lottery protected) and a second-round pick. Denver also traded JaVale McGee, a 2015 first-round pick (from the Oklahoma City Thunder, top-18 protected) and the draft rights to Chukwudiebere Maduabum for the draft rights to Cenk Akyol. Days later, the Nuggets waived both Claver and Robinson, which means that Denver ultimately ended up with Barton, a 2016 first-round pick (lottery protected), a second-round pick and Maduabum.

Moving McGee’s contract was a priority for Denver, but it came at a steep price. And while moving Afflalo was a smart move, it’s some what surprising that the team didn’t move Wilson Chandler too (although he could be an attractive trade chip this summer, especially since his salary for next season in only partially guaranteed). It’s hard to tell whether Denver wants to gut the roster and start over or re-tool the roster with some of the pieces already in place. For now, Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried and Jusuf Nurkic are Denver’s three most important players and the most likely to stick around long-term.

Utah Jazz –

The Utah Jazz did well for themselves by dealing Enes Kanter and Steve Novak for Grant Jerrett, Kendrick Perkins (waived), the rights to Tibor Pleiss, an Oklahoma City first-round pick and Detroit’s 2017 second-round pick.

Kanter is the most valuable player in this trade, but he made it clear that he no longer wanted to be in Utah as Rudy Gobert emerged as the team’s center of the future and he will likely be overpaid this summer anyway.

The Jazz certainly don’t improve on the court in the short term, but they continue to add long-term assets for what is shaping up to be a promising roster of young talent.

The Teams That Didn’t Make a Trade:

Golden State Warriors –

The Golden State Warriors continue to be the cream of the crop in the West. They have won eight of their last 10 games, and continue to play exceptionally well on both sides of the court. The Warriors’ biggest concern is injuries. Stephen Curry recently missed a game with a foot injury (which is always concerning considering his past ankle injuries), and Andrew Bogut is always at risk of missing time.

One other concern for the Warriors is the relative ease of their schedule so far (they have had the lowest strength of schedule this season, according to Hollinger’s Power Ranking). Still, the Warriors have beaten the league’s best teams, are loaded with shooting and multi-skilled defensive wing-players and are led by one of the brightest coaches in the league in Steve Kerr.

Memphis Grizzlies –

The Memphis Grizzlies took down the Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers recently, and are quietly one of the best teams in the league this season. They weren’t active at the trade deadline, but they did make a big move earlier this season with the addition of Jeff Green.

Green has added some much needed depth on the wing. Though Green’s numbers aren’t great, he allows head coach Dave Joerger to bring Tony Allen off the bench, which is a nice luxury to have. Memphis looks well-positioned for a deep playoff run.

Los Angeles Clippers –

The Los Angeles Clippers failed to swing any deals to shore up their wing-depth, which has been an issue all season. The Clippers did land Austin Rivers well in advance of the deadline, and he has played surprisingly well so far, especially defensively. Now, the Clippers will look for free agents and buyout players to shore up their depth. The team just signed small forward Jordan Hamilton to a 10-day contract. Hamilton is a good three-point shooter and could potentially add some floor-spacing for the high-powered Clippers.

The biggest issue for the Clippers is the health of Blake Griffin. Griffin is still recovering from a staph infection in his elbow, which was removed surgically. He should be back in the court well in advance of the postseason. It will be interesting to see how Griffin’s return impacts center DeAndre Jordan, who has been on a tear recently. Also, the team’s overall defense remains around league average and is not playing at a championship level yet. Time is running out for Doc Rivers to get his players coordinated on the defensive side of the ball.

Dallas Mavericks –

The Dallas Mavericks managed to add Amar’e Stoudemire, who was bought out during All-Star Weekend by the New York Knicks. Stoudemire has been solid so far for the Mavericks, and potentially fills the void left by Brandan Wright, who the Mavericks traded earlier this season.

The biggest concern for the Mavericks is point guard Rajon Rondo. He has dealt with some injuries and most recently got into a shouting match with head coach Rick Carlisle. Rondo has a history of challenging coaches, as he did with Doc Rivers in Boston, so this is not too surprising. Rondo is still a massive upgrade for the Mavericks at point guard, but Dallas’ ability to make a deep postseason run will largely depend on whether Rondo is in sync with his coaches and teammates when the playoffs start.

San Antonio Spurs –

The San Antonio Spurs have lost three in a row and have won just five of their last 10 games. The team has struggled with injuries and inconsistent play all season. The Spurs need to find their groove soon with the Thunder now just three games back in the loss column.

San Antonio has a chance to gain some momentum over the next five games, facing the Sacramento Kings (twice), Suns, Denver Nuggets and Chicago Bulls (a team that is vulnerable after losing Derrick Rose to another torn meniscus).

Los Angeles Lakers –

Kobe Bryant has been shut down for the season and the Lakers need to worry about retaining their lottery pick for the upcoming draft. If the Lakers’ pick lands outside of the top five, it will belong to the Philadelphia 76ers (who acquired it from the Phoenix Suns at the deadline). The Lakers’ roster will likely be overhauled this offseason, so there is not much to play for this season, except for internal development and try outs for pending free agents.

 

This is how the Western Conference stacks up now that the trade deadline is behind us. Many teams were active, but one thing that didn’t change in the West is the fact that there will be eight teams that have a legitimate shot of making a deep postseason run. This conference is stacked and after months of teams bolstering their rosters with signings and trades, we finally have a pretty clear picture of what each team will look like for the final stretch of the season.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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