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What We Learned in Week 18 – Eastern Conference

We’re another week closer to the NBA Playoffs and Garrett Brooks is taking a closer look at the latest developments in the Eastern Conference.

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The Eastern Conference playoff race is heating up as the top three teams separate themselves from the rest of the pack. There’s a real battle happening at the back end of the playoff picture as well between the Washington Wizards, Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls.

In a week that saw teams get hot, teams go cold and shocking news come out, there’s a lot to unpack in terms of the latest developments in the NBA Eastern Conference.

The Philadelphia 76ers Are Ready to Contend

Following years of disappointing conclusions to their seasons, it appears the 76ers are finally maximizing the talent they have. In Doc Rivers’ first season leading the charge, the 6ers are atop the conference and have proven they can beat the NBA’s elite teams.

If it weren’t for significant time misses, Joel Embiid would have a very strong case for the MVP award. He spent this week showing why he could be a major problem for some of the league’s best teams in the playoffs.

In games against the Dallas Mavericks, Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Clippers this week Embiid was a force in leading the 7e6ers to a 3-0 record. Across those three games, he averaged 37 points per game to go with 11.3 rebounds.

No one wants to face a healthy 76ers team in a seven-game series. Very few organizations have a sound structure in place to slow Embiid down, if that is even possible at this point. He’s doing it inside, outside and everywhere in between.

While many have too quickly crowned the Nets as the Eastern Conference champions, Embiid is on a mission to take them down. With the combination of shooters and defenders he has around him, there is no way they can be counted out.

LaMarcus Aldridge Retires Following Health Concerns

LaMarcus Aldridge decided to retire following a health scare on the court recently. He made a decision that was best for his family and future and everyone across the league is wishing him the best moving forward.

Given the sudden nature of his retirement announcement and the role he was set to play on the Nets, it’s easy to forget how special a player Aldridge was for many years. He had an incredible NBA career that deserves to be discussed and highlighted.

Selected 2nd overall in the 2006 NBA Draft by the Chicago Bulls, Aldridge was quickly traded on draft night to the Portland Trailblazers. By year number two in the league, the power forward was a force. That season he put up 17.8 points and 7.6 rebounds per game.

In nine seasons in Portland, Aldridge averaged 19.4 points per game and 8.4 rebounds per game. He had legendary playoff performances and cemented himself as a special player in the history of the franchise.

Following a change of scenery that saw him move to the San Antonio Spurs, Aldridge continued producing. He spent six seasons playing for the Spurs and continued to be a force on the offensive end.

Aldridge calls it a career after 15 NBA seasons in which he played 1,029 career games and made life miserable for defenders in every single one of them. Cheers and all the best to LaMarcus Aldridge as he moves on to the next chapter in his life.

The Bulls Floundering Post-Trade Deadline

The Chicago Bulls seemed to have a tight grip on a play-in tournament spot following the trade deadline. Their aggressive additions of players like Nikola Vucevic and Daniel Theis made their intentions clear. They aren’t looking to bottom out to rebuild; they want to improve now.

It’s not going according to plan. Following the additions to the roster, the Bulls have struggled mightily. At first, it could be chalked up to a tough schedule and little practice time for the group.

Now any reasoning for their play is just excusing not meeting expectations. Vucevic and Theis specifically have done exactly what they were brought in to do as individuals but it’s not paying off for the team.

Rookie Patrick Williams has seemingly hit the rookie wall. While not ideal, for some first-year players it is inevitable. The much bigger issue has been some of the team’s more experienced players, like forward Lauri Markkanen.

Markkanen has disappeared and seems to have no confidence since being moved to a bench role. His time in Chicago is limited, as he will hit restricted free agency this offseason.

Add in the unfortunate timing of all-star guard Zach LaVine entering the league’s health and safety protocols and everything lines up for a disappointing end to the Bulls 2020-21 NBA season.

Julius Randle the Star the Knicks Have Been Waiting For

Season after season, the New York Knicks are linked to top free agents but end up settling for less. That has now paid off for them, as Julius Randle, once considered a consolation prize for the organization, is becoming a star right in front of our eyes.

While he broke out early in the year and has been great all season, his recent play further proves nothing about what he has done as a fluke. He is playing a major role, alongside Tom Thibodeau, in bringing credibility and respect back to the historic franchise.

While obviously not a championship contender yet, the sky is the limit for the Knicks in the coming years. They no longer are pitching just a city to free agents; they are also pitching a roster and organization trending in the right direction.

Thibodeau is maximizing Randle on the court and it’s easy to see why players would want to join a nucleus of him, RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley and Mitchell Robinson. They also have picks stockpiled in upcoming drafts that will help them improve their roster.

The Knicks’ undefeated week is a continuation of their much-improved play this season. It was capped by a 44 point, 10 rebound and 7 assist performance by Randle against the Dallas Mavericks on Friday night.

Celtics Continue Odd Moves to Compete This Year

The Boston Celtics failed to make the big splash trade many anticipated at this year’s trade deadline. It was one way the team could better prepare themselves to compete with the games truly elite teams.

Even though they made one of the best value trades in the league when they acquired Evan Fournier, it was disappointing compared to what was needed to take the team to the next level.

In the buyout market, the team had dreams of adding the impact big they failed to acquire via trade but had no luck doing so. The best big men available chose teams expected to be in the NBA finals, with Aldridge joining the Nets and Andre Drummond choosing to join the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Celtics settled for forward Jabari Parker in a move that doesn’t move the needle much at all but could make them more entertaining to watch for many reasons. First of all, Parker doesn’t fill the biggest hole on the Celtics roster, which is a two-way center.

Second, it’s hard to see him getting very many minutes in a rotation featuring many more impactful players on both ends of the court. Parker’s greatest strength is on the offensive end with the ball in his hands, though the Celtics didn’t have much of a need for a forward who dominates the ball.

Garrett Brooks is a contributing writer for Basketball Insiders based out of Chicago, Illinois. In addition to multiple years of covering the NBA, Garrett has also spent time in live events, analytics, and on-court training.

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Rockets decline Avery Bradley’s $5.9 million team option

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First reported by Shams Charania of The Athletic, the Houston Rockets are declining Avery Bradley’s team option for the 2021-22 NBA season. On November 23, 2020, the 30-year-old guard signed as a free agent with the Miami Heat. He signed a two-year, $11.6 million deal. On March 25, 2021, the Heat traded Bradley, Kelly Olynyk, and a 2022 first-round pick to the Houston Rockets for two-time NBA All-Star guard Victor Oladipo. The 2022 first-round pick is an option to trade for a potential Heat or Nets pick. Plus, Houston received a trade exception, too.

Moreover, Bradley earned $5,635,000 this previous season; the Rockets declined his 2021-22 team option of $5,916,750 for next season. In other words, both sides have mutually agreed to part ways, so the six-foot-three guard is now an unrestricted free agent. In early February, it was first reported that the Washington native would miss three to four weeks due to a calf strain. Before this injury, he averaged 8.5 points, 1.8 rebounds, and 1.4 assists per game for Miami. Furthermore, he also shot a career-high percentage of 42.1 percent from behind the arc last season.

Though, Bradley disappointed both of his teams last season, leading to the Rockets finishing 17-55 (.236), ranking 15th overall in the Western Conference. Last season was the first time since the 1982-83 season that Houston failed to win at least 20 games. Since the 2011-12 season, it was the first time the Rockets had failed to qualify for the playoffs. In only 27 games played, the 11-year NBA veteran averaged 6.4 points, 2.1 rebounds, and 1.7 assists per game. He shot 37.4 percent from the field as well.

Likewise, the Miami Heat finished 40-32 (.556) last season, regressing from the team’s 44-29 (.603) record and sixth NBA Finals appearance from the 2019-20 season. Fans across social media are already speculating that the 2010 19th overall pick will end up playing for the Los Angeles Lakers next season. If this happens, he would join the team’s newly established big three: LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook.

After Bradley signed with the Lakers for the 2019-20 season, he joined the list of players in the league’s history who played for both the Celtics and Lakers. The list includes Brian Shaw, Clyde Lovellette, Mel Counts, Rick Fox, Don Nelson, Bob McAdoo, Isaiah Thomas, Charlie Scott, Gary Payton, Shaquille O’Neal, and Rajon Rondo. According to Bleacher Report, the Lakers are also interested in signing Carmelo Anthony this offseason.

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Mavericks are expected to pick up Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option

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Per ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, the Dallas Mavericks are planning to pick up center Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option for the 2021-22 NBA season. The deadline is tomorrow. Last season, in 53 games played, the seven-foot big man averaged 5.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. The sixth-year player also shot 63.2 percent from the field last season.

On July 8, 2019, Cauley-Stein signed a two-year, $4.46 million contract with the Golden State Warriors. Then, on January 25, 2020, Cauley-Stein was traded to the Mavericks for a 2020 second-round pick. If everything goes smoothly, the 27-year-old center is set to earn $4.1 million next season. The 2015 sixth overall pick’s contract consumes less than three percent of the team’s total salary cap.

This news comes right after Dallas received center Moses Brown from the Boston Celtics. Brown is a seven-foot-two, 2019 undrafted player out of UCLA. In 2021, Brown was named to the All-NBA G League First Team and All-Defensive Team. On March 28, 2021, the 21-year-old center signed a four-year, $6.8 million contract with the Thunder.

However, on June 18, 2021, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded Brown, Al Horford, and a 2023 second-round pick to the Celtics for Kemba Walker, a 2021 first-round pick, and a 2025 second-round pick. With Boston, Brown was set to earn $1,701,593 next season. Of course, the Mavs’ organization is finalizing a trade to send Josh Richardson to the Celtics as well. In other news, today is Mavs’ owner Mark Cuban’s 63rd birthday.

Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 luxury tax totals, the Mavs’ current luxury tax space is $52,326,531. The 2021 NBA salary cap maximum is $112,414,000. Their current cap space is $27,595,632. Cauley-Stein’s contract is recognized as a club option, not a player option or guaranteed money. Richardson’s deadline is also tomorrow, so because he is getting traded to Boston, the team will not collect his $11,615,328 player option.

Plus, Jalen Brunson’s deadline is also August 1st. His guaranteed value is $1,802,057. Leading into the 2021-22 season, Kristaps Porzingis has the highest cap figure on the team, which is an amount worth $31,650,600, consuming 22.73 percent of the team’s total salary cap. At the moment, Porzingis is a popular name in trade rumor articles. Bettors and NBA analysts are predicting a possible trade to the Brooklyn Nets, Sacramento Kings, or Philadelphia 76ers.

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Lakers Need More Than Big Three

The Lakers have their “big three” after trading for Russell Westbrook but is he the right fit in Los Angeles? The former MVP has had an incredible career but he may not be the point guard the Lakers desperately need.

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The Los Angeles Lakers have formed their three-headed monster as they pursue the franchise’s 18th championship next season. Just as the NBA Draft was getting started, the Lakers completed a deal with the Washington Wizards that landed them the 2016-17 league MVP, Russell Westbrook.

The deal sent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and the 21st overall pick in this year’s draft to Washington, paving the way for Westbrook to join fellow superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis. While the Lakers added a dynamic point guard, not everyone is sold on the idea that the Lakers are the team to beat in the loaded Western Conference.

Over the past several weeks, the Lakers were rumored to be seeking perimeter shooting. Some reports had Los Angeles linked to guys like Chris Paul, Buddy Hield and DeMar DeRozan. When the dust settled, it was Washington that made the deal as Westbrook informed the front office that he preferred the Lakers as a destination.

The move is a homecoming of sorts, as Westbrook grew up in the area and spent two seasons playing at UCLA, leading the Bruins to the 2008 Final Four. He had a solid 2020-21 season, averaging 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists per game for the Wizards, who earned the No. 8 seed in the playoffs.

Oddly enough, this is the third straight offseason in which the 9-time All-Star has been traded. After leaving Oklahoma City, Westbrook was not able to find postseason success in Houston or Washington. Will that now change in Los Angeles?

For all of his accomplishments, Westbrook’s legacy has been defined by his play during the regular season. This past season, the point guard passed Oscar Robertson for the most triple-doubles in the history of the game. Out of his 184 triple-doubles, only 12 have come in the playoffs. By comparison, Magic Johnson has the most playoff career triple-doubles with 30, and James is next with 28. Now all three will have played for the Lakers during their careers.

The thing about triple-doubles (and this is especially the case with Westbrook) is that they don’t always translate to wins. They clearly help the team overall but some would argue that a more balanced attack is tougher to stop. History has shown that having a “big three” is almost a requirement to be considered a legitimate championship contender, but this trio in Los Angeles doesn’t exactly fit together like many of those others.

As talented and valuable as Westbrook has been over the course of his career, he needs to have the ball to be effective. His poor perimeter shooting has been the big hiccup in his game, and that is something that this Lakers team desperately needs. The problem isn’t that any of these three won’t share the ball. In fact, they had already discussed checking their egos even before this trade went down.

Westbrook has never had a problem sharing the ball. He was able to co-exist with Durant in Oklahoma City, Harden in Houston and Beal in Washington. The difference in this scenario is that he will be occupying the same space as James and Davis. The concern is efficiency. Out of 34 players to average at least 20 points per game over the last four seasons, Westbrook ranked 33rd in true shooting percentage.

When James drives to the rim or when Davis is facing a double-team inside, how confident will they be in passing out to Westbrook for a three-pointer? Better yet, how patient will they be if the shot isn’t falling? We have already seen what happened with Danny Green and Caldwell-Pope.

Now that the Lakers have assembled their trio of stars, many fans are hopeful to witness an NBA Finals matchup where James and the Lakers meet Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets. As juicy as that series would be, the Western Conference is a gauntlet. There is no guarantee that the Lakers will make it there.

What helps their path is that the crosstown rival Clippers will likely be without Kawhi Leonard next season. The Denver Nuggets will be without Jamal Murray and the Golden State Warriors might not be the Warriors from four years ago. There is also uncertainty surrounding Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers and some potential roster changeup with the Utah Jazz.

Considering all of the top-tier point guard talent available in free agency this summer, the Lakers may have been better off trying to do a sign-and-trade. Such a scenario would have hard-capped them but after this deal, they are just $12.6 million below the hard cap with just five players on the roster. Putting together a deal for Hield is still possible, but the Lakers will have to get creative. Adding a third team to this trade, in particular, is one way to accomplish that. Again, it is possible but it will be complicated.

In a perfect world, the Lakers could have worked with Toronto on a sign-and-trade for Kyle Lowry. Even though Lowry is older than Westbrook, the current window for Los Angeles to win with this group is closing fast. Lowry would be cheaper and a much better fit overall. His durability, toughness, defense and high basketball IQ would pay dividends for the Lakers. Adding in the fact that he is a much better shooter, one has to wonder why the Lakers wouldn’t pursue this route instead.

Westbrook is still going to help this team. He is a tremendous asset for them in the regular season, especially when James is on the bench or unable to play. Having another floor general on the court to generate offense is something they have not had since James arrived. If Los Angeles can land some above-average shooting to the roster, Westbrook could flourish in this role.

With James sliding to the power forward position and Davis playing more at center, the key for Los Angeles will be to surround these guys with shooters. The Lakers ranked 21st in three-point percentage and 25th in makes last season. Expect the organization to be busy when free agency starts next week. Targets will include guys like Duncan Robinson, JJ Redick, Norman Powell, Evan Fournier, Doug McDermott, Bryn Forbes, Patrick Mills, Reggie Bullock, Kendrick Nunn and Alec Burks.

Obviously, the Lakers are counting on their individual talent and figuring out the rest later. It likely means the end for Dennis Schröder. Can Alex Caruso fit in and where does this leave Talen Horton-Tucker? The rest of the roster is in limbo, but the star players and the front office both feel confident that they will land the other pieces that they need to raise another banner next summer.

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