michalkajzerek/CC FLICKR

Following the NBA’s trade deadline, the home stretch of the NBA season has arrived. With less than 30 games left in each team’s schedule, the league has officially settled in for the playoff push. While none of the teams in the Western Conference made any moves to truly challenge the Golden State Warriors, teams in the Eastern Conference have answered the bell.

LeBron James’ exodus from the Cleveland Cavaliers last summer has left the Eastern Conference wide open for a new favourite to emerge, and prior to the deadline, three contenders made substantial trades. With these moves, the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, and Toronto Raptors have signalled their intentions to face the Golden State in June.

The Philadelphia 76ers took a large gamble that they’re hoping will pay off. They traded Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala, Landry Shamet, and multiple draft picks to the Los Angeles Clippers for Mike Scott, Boban Marjanović, and Tobias Harris.

Harris is the crown jewel of the trade; he’s a high-scoring forward who the Sixers hope can be their fourth star next to Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Jimmy Butler. To acquire him, Philly parted with two first-round picks, including an unprotected 2021 from Miami Heat. These picks are a costly fee for Harris — a free agent who may only be a rental if he chooses to sign somewhere else this summer — but the 76ers are determined to show that the years of tanking that led to the selections of Simmons and Embiid were not in vain. By sacrificing future assets in an effort to win now, the Sixers are signaling that The Process is now dead, and that they are ready to compete for a championship.

The Milwaukee Bucks pulled off their own big move, giving up very little to acquire the perfect player to complement their MVP candidate.

Since coach Mike Budenholzer’s arrival this season, the Bucks have roared to the top record in the NBA, buoyed by the performance of superstar Giannis “Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo. Antetokounmpo — who is jockeying with James Harden for the lead in the MVP race — is a playmaking dunk machine, who thrives when playing with three-point shooters.

On the day of the deadline, the Bucks acquired Nikola Mirotic from the New Orleans Pelicans for Stanley Johnson, Jason Smith, and two second-round picks. Mirotic, a power forward making 37 per cent of his threes this season, is an ideal complement for a player like Antetokounmpo: a sharpshooting big man who can space the floor for Milwaukee’s already potent offense. By giving up two non-rotation players and mediocre draft picks, the East’s frontrunner got significantly better, and the Greek Freak will be gunning for his first NBA championship ring.

Finally, the Toronto Raptors showed that they too were willing to make a major acquisition, trading away multiple rotation pieces for an aging star. Marc Gasol, the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year and a three-time All-Star, was traded to the Raptors by the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, CJ Miles, and a second-round pick. The loss of Valanciunas and Wright will hurt the team’s depth, but a player of Gasol’s calibre is rarely available for such a low price.

Unfortunately, there are troubling reasons for his availability. The Grizzlies have been one of the worst-performing teams in the NBA this year, and the longtime Gasol and point guard Mike Conley tag-team has not been able to replicate the results that propelled the Grizzlies to playoff success in previous years.

Moreover, at 34, Gasol has shown signs of individual decline during his team’s collapse. The hope for Toronto is that the move to a winning team will revitalize his play, allowing him to show off the stellar defense and excellent passing skills that made him a star.

Raptors President Masai Ujiri is taking a big risk here, wagering that this move will put them over the top in the East. If he’s wrong, then this summer could bring some worst-case scenarios: Kawhi Leonard leaving in free agency and Gasol picking up his $25-million player option. But it seems that Masai believes the time for the Raptors to compete is now, and with conference rivals adding valuable pieces, this trade could give Toronto the necessary boost to win the East.

The Eastern Conference playoffs are poised to be a bloodbath. The Raptors, Bucks, and Sixers have all improved, and although the Boston Celtics remained silent at the deadline, they have a formidable roster that could pose a real threat, if they figure out their chemistry issues.

This will be the first Eastern Conference Finals without LeBron in almost a decade. With the East’s top teams armed to the teeth, the conference championship is up for the taking, but it will not be an easy fight.

Stay up to date. Sign up for our weekly newsletter, sent straight to your inbox:

* indicates required

Tags: , , ,