The Whiteboard: 3 big questions left after the NBA Trade Deadline

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The NBA Trade Deadline provided everything we could have asked for — early action, lots of trades and several huge names on the move. To break down some of the biggest lingering questions I tapped in two of the best minds from The Step Back and FanSided’s NBA network.

Forget the rest of the Eastern Conference, who would you take in a seven-game series between the Nets and 76ers?

Ben Ladner, The Step Back: It’s a close call. I like the idea of unlocking Ben Simmons as a roll man and downhill driver with four shooters around him, and both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving’s immutable individual scoring takes on greater value in the playoffs. That said, those four-out lineups featuring Simmons, Durant and Irving are contingent upon the Nets’ best players being available, which I don’t trust them to be. Joe Harris, one of the team’s best shooters, remains out indefinitely, Irving currently can’t play in the team’s home games and Durant’s sprained MCL just worries me.

The Sixers, meanwhile, are the more balanced team with better personnel to match up with Brooklyn than vice versa, and probably have the best player in this series in Joel Embiid. The Nets might be the better team if everything goes right, but I have less faith in that happening for them than I do in the Sixers striking the right balance between Embiid and James Harden. I’ll take the Sixers in seven, if only because of how many variables are up in the air for Brooklyn.

Phillip Barnett, NBA Division DirectorOperating under the assumption that everyone is healthy, I think I’m leaning a little more toward the 76ers at the moment. Joel Embiid simply presents a problem that the Nets just don’t have a real solution for. Even without ideal spacing, Embiid has been a man amongst boys on nearly every night and has been good – not great – cleaning up messes on the defensive end. Tyrese Maxey is having one of those seasons where he appears to be turning a very big corner (not having to play behind Ben Simmons absolutely helps here) and Matisse Thybulle is as good an individual defender you can ask for to play opposite Kevin Durant.

And you have all of this without James Harden. If Harden can be somewhere between where he was this season with Brooklyn and his peak with Houston, Philly is going to be a tough out for just about anyone in the East. For Brooklyn, Andre Drummond will help a bit, but they’re still awfully thin in the frontcourt and have a ton of questions to answer on the defensive end despite how great Simmons can be. And while nabbing Seth Curry, in my opinion, was the steal of the trade, not having Kyrie Irving in three to four games of this series just might be too much for Brooklyn to overcome. 

Ian Levy, The Step BackI think this is the 76ers pretty clearly. I think there’s an overall talent edge for the 76ers, especially if Kyrie Irving is only playing road games. But I think there’s also a lot more rage to be mined on the 76ers’ side. The Nets may be mad at James Harden for forcing his way out and Ben Simmons may be hungry to prove himself. But that’s nothing compared to the hunger the 76ers roster is going to have for beating Simmons. Throw in Embiid (the king of petty grudges) wanting to embarrass Andre Drummond and this might not even be close.

Who wins more games next season — the Portland Trail Blazers or the New Orleans Pelicans?

Ben Ladner, The Step Back: Assuming Zion ever plays again, New Orleans by a hair. Neither team figures to be a defensive powerhouse, and both are counting on injured superstars to return to something close to peak form. I think the Pelicans’ depth makes them a slightly safer bet to win slightly more games. There’s a chance the Blazers restock the cupboard and build a solid playoff team around a healthy Damian Lillard by next season, but right now I prefer New Orleans’ more established offensive foundation to Portland’s relatively blank slate.

Phillip Barnett, NBA Division Director: We should preface this with the caveat that this answer is likely going to be flipped on its head at some point during the offseason considering how each team approached the trade deadline. As of right now, I have no idea what Portland’s roster is going to look like on opening night, but if it looks anything like it does today, the answer is New Orleans. Portland opened up a lot of cap space and can do some big things this summer, but they can also give Damian Lillard a lot more money which might handcuff them in building out the rest of the roster.

In New Orleans, a core of CJ McCollum, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson and Jonas Valanciunas looks like a top 6-8 team on paper that could maybe overachieve under the right circumstances. However, we still haven’t seen Zion touch the floor this year. That core along with Devonte Graham, Larry Nance, Jaxon Hayes and Garrett Temple are all under contract for next season, so there is an opportunity to build some continuity heading into next season, which also bodes well for the Pels. 

Ian Levy, The Step Back: I don’t even know where to start. I’m not as impressed with the Pelicans’ core as is and I think there’s a good chance the Zion Williams situation gets worse before it gets any better. The Pelicans may have the talent to push for a playoff berth next season but, between injuries, apathy, lethargy and Zion’s willingness to commit, they also have the potential to combust catastrophically. The Trail Blazers, on the other hand, are banking on, I don’t even know what. Stealing Deandre Ayton with a massive offer sheet? Throwing $100 million at Miles Bridges or Collin Sexton? I think the Pelicans are probably better but not by much and I wouldn’t be surprised to see both teams out of the playoff race next season as well.

Everyone is focused on the big Harden-Simmons swap. What’s one other NBA Trade Deadline deal you think could pay big dividends down the road?

Ben Ladner, The Step Back: It technically encompasses two trades, but I like what San Antonio did at the deadline. They could have gone all-in on making the play-in tournament as the Kings did, but instead, the Spurs decided to take a step back and be more patient. After making just two total in-season trades between 2013 and 2021, they turned Derrick White and Thaddeus Young, solid two-way veterans with more value to playoff contenders than a lottery team, into Josh Richardson, Boston and Toronto’s 2022 first-round picks and a potential swap with the Celtics in 2028 — all while setting themselves up for a high lottery pick in the upcoming Draft. That means the franchise that found Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard and Dejounte Murray (among others) in the mid-to-late first round will likely have two additional swings in that range this summer, plus a potential top-five pick, to add to an already promising young team. Kudos to the Spurs for having the patience and foresight to wait out their rebuild so that they might make their eventual return with real aspirations.

Phillip Barnett, NBA Division Director: There are two here for me. The first is the Celtics nabbing Derrick White from the Spurs. The Celtics have had a bizarre season with some incredible peaks and some dreadful valleys. Enter White, one of the most consistent, even-keeled players in the league who may be able to come in zand level some things out for a Boston team that seems to be heading in the right direction at the right time. The other is the Suns bringing back Torrey Craig. None of the top teams in the West made any significant changes and Craig is a nice option to bring off the bench as a defensive specialist when inevitably see guys like Steph Curry, Ja Morant and Donovan Mitchell during the postseason.

Ian Levy, The Step Back: Tyrese Haliburton to the Pacers. I honestly still can’t believe that happened. The team with some of the worst vibes in the league just got a major infusion of positivity. Oh, and he can ball too.

Other NBA stories:

If Ben’s answers above just whet your appetite, make sure to check out his deeper analysis on the deadline’s biggest moves. In The Long Two, he weighed the win-now risks that the Trail Blazers and Kings took at the deadline. Later, he circled back to explain the challenges the 76ers and Nets might face in trying to integrate their new stars.

The Clippers probably aren’t going anywhere this season if Kawhi Leonard and Paul George don’t come back. But their trade deadline haul has them set up to jump right back to contender status next season.

The most puzzling deal of the deadline, by far, was the Mavericks trading Kristaps Porzingis to the Wizards. It’s not a surprise that the Mavericks wanted to move him but it was a bit surprising how much long-term money is tied up in their return — Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans. For the Wizards, what do they think they’re getting here?

Thad Young doesn’t make the Raptors a contender but he’s a huge get and might be enough to help them win a playoff series.

Boston Celtics fans are very excited about the Derrick White acquisition. They have every right to be, he can solve a lot of the problems the team’s offense has been working through this season.

Muggsy Bogues hit a halftime free throw at Wednesday night’s Charlotte Hornets game and won a free house for a veteran, thanks to Veterans United.

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