It’s been five weeks since a busy trade deadline shook up the top of the Eastern Conference, with the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors all making deals in an effort to push themselves to the top of the East.
The postseason will ultimately decide the winners and losers from the deadline. It’s still early with most of these new faces in new places, and a couple of good or bad games could skew the numbers of a player that’s only played a dozen games with a team.
But there’s something to learn from every game on the schedule. And the playoffs are now less than a month away.
With no major conclusions to draw just yet, here are some early returns on some late-season additions to teams (in both the East and West) that will be competing in the postseason (and one that will likely come up short in its quest to end the league’s longest current playoff drought).
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EASTERN CONFERENCE TRADES
Mirotic not shy in Milwaukee
Since joining the team that averages the second most 3-point attempts per game, Nikola Mirotic has attempted the most 3-pointers per 36 minutes (10.2). Though he hasn’t been super hot (his effective field goal percentage of 54.2 percent with the Bucks is a little above the league average), the Bucks have scored an efficient 115.3 points per 100 possessions in Mirotic’s 243 minutes on the floor.
But interestingly, Mirotic has played just 88 minutes alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo. The new Buck is seemingly a great complement to the Kia MVP candidate, but the two have played less than nine minutes per game together, with Mirotic more often playing alongside Khris Middleton. And really, everybody else in the rotation is a great complement to Antetokounmpo.
Pau Gasol is, seemingly, not in the rotation. He left San Antonio because he was the Spurs’ third-string center, but it’s not clear he’ll have a bigger role in Milwaukee. He’s been DNP’d in two of the last three games, and in San Antonio on Sunday, he was a minus-20 in less than 15 minutes of a game that the Bucks lost by seven.
Raptors still awaiting best from Gasol, Lin
The Toronto bench hasn’t been nearly as good as it was a year ago, and the two late-season additions haven’t helped it much. Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin have shot a combined 8-for-42 (19 percent) from 3-point range with their new team, and in their 100 minutes on the floor together, the Raptors have been outscored by 13 points per 100 possessions.
The Raptors miss Fred VanVleet, who has been out five weeks with a wrist injury. Last season’s third place finisher in Kia Sixth Man of the Year voting has the best on-court numbers among Toronto’s regular reserves, but has played just one game with Gasol and has yet to play alongside Lin.
Gasol has started five games with Toronto, and the Raptors have outscored their opponents by 11 points per 100 possessions in his 62 total minutes with him on the floor alongside their other four starters. With Serge Ibaka suspended for the next three games, that lineup will get some more burn (though Kawhi Leonard will surely sit out at least one of the three).
As expected, Gasol has given the Raptors’ ball movement a boost. They’ve assisted on 65 percent of their buckets over Gasol’s 12 games. That’s the fifth-highest rate in the league over that stretch and up from 58 percent (22nd) prior to his addition. They’ve assisted on more than 72 percent of their buckets with Gasol and Kyle Lowry on the floor together.
Harris shining bright with Sixers
In his eighth season in the league, Tobias Harris is registering career highs in both effective field goal percentage (56.6 percent) and true shooting percentage (60.7 percent). And both of those numbers have been higher in his 14 games with the Sixers than they were in his 55 games with the Clippers. Harris has been the Sixers’ second-leading scorer (19.9 points per game) since arriving via a Feb. 6 trade.
Because Joel Embiid missed the first eight games after the All-Star break, the Sixers’ new starting lineup has played just 83 minutes in five games together. The numbers in those minutes (plus-24.0 points per 100 possessions) have been ridiculously good, but they include 20 minutes in New York in which the Sixers outscored the Knicks by 23 points.
Even when the five starters are healthy, Harris will play more minutes in other lineups than he does with that starting group, because Brett Brown staggers his starters more than any other coach, keeping two on the floor at all time. Harris has played most with Ben Simmons, and the Sixers have been outscored by 4.4 points per 100 possessions in 301 minutes with Harris and Simmons on the floor without Embiid.
The Sixers have upgraded the talent around him, but Embiid remains the difference maker in Philly.
Matthews fills in nicely for Pacers
Of all the late-season additions listed here, Matthews seemed to fill the biggest hole in a team’s rotation. After Victor Oladipo was lost for the season, the Pacers started either the Cory Joseph (who’s 6-foot-3) or Tyreke Evans (who’s had a disappointing season) at shooting guard.
Matthews made six 3-pointers and scored 24 points in his third game with Indiana. Having made 38 percent of his team-leading 77 shots from beyond the arc, he’s helped the Pacers remain in the top five in 3-point percentage.
But the Pacers’ new starting lineup (plus-2.0 points per 100 possessions in 192 minutes) hasn’t been as good as any of the other versions (with Oladipo, Evans or Joseph at the two), even though it has played six of its 10 games against teams with losing records. And the schedule is about to get much tougher, with the Pacers set to play 12 of their next 13 games against teams with winning records.
The Matthews addition has put Joseph and Evans back in their bench roles, and the Pacers have outscored their opponents by 9.0 points per 100 possessions in 566 minutes with the two reserve guards on the floor with Sixth Man of the Year candidate Domantas Sabonis.
The Western Conference wasn’t as busy as the East at the deadline, but in the last two months, two former All-Stars made their debuts with the two teams atop the standings.
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Cousins’ impact a mixed bag so far
In the eight weeks since he made his season debut, the Warriors have been better with DeMarcus Cousins off the floor (plus-8.7 points per 100 possessions) than they’ve been with him on the floor (plus-0.3). The bigger difference in those numbers has been on offense, though the issue with the Warriors’ new starting lineup has been on the other side of the ball.
In its 179 minutes together, the Warriors’ five-star lineup has scored 113.3 points per 100 possessions and allowed 111.1, making it the worst defensive lineup of their six that have played at least 75 minutes together. Cousins has had issues defending in space and that lineup has allowed opponents to make 11.1 3-pointers per 36 minutes, most among the 55 league-wide lineups that have played at least 150 minutes together (the league average is 8.4 threes per 36).
In 115 minutes with the other four starters on the court without Cousins over the last eight weeks, the Warriors have been better defensively and much better offensively, outscoring their opponents by 18.4 points per 100 possessions. Andre Iguodala has been the fifth guy on the floor for most of those minutes and has been on the floor for almost twice as many “clutch” minutes as Cousins over the last eight weeks. Down the stretch of close games, Warriors coach Steve Kerr has been more likely to turn to his small-ball lineup, which has outscored its opponents by 22.7 points per 100 possessions, the second-best mark among those 55 lineups that have played at least 150 minutes.
But Cousins had his best game as a Warrior on Wednesday, registering 27 points (on 11-for-16 shooting), eight rebounds and seven assists as the champs held off the Rockets in Houston. He was a plus-7 in a two-point victory.
Kevin Durant didn’t play on Wednesday, and it may be that Cousins is most valuable in minutes when the Warriors don’t have all three of their leading scorers — Stephen Curry, Durant and Klay Thompson — on the floor, though he hasn’t disrupted the offense when he’s been out there with all three. In fact, the Warriors’ starting lineup has assisted on 79.5 percent of its field goals, by far the highest rate among lineups that have played at least 150 minutes together.
As he showed on Wednesday, Cousins has the ability to be a difference-maker on any given night. And the great thing for the Warriors is that they have other options when they need them.
Thomas falls out of rotation
The Nuggets signed Isaiah Thomas last summer knowing that he’d miss most of the season as he recovered from hip surgery. What they didn’t necessarily know was that, before Thomas could make his season debut on Feb. 13, Malik Beasley (who wasn’t able to stick in the rotation in his first two seasons) and Monte Morris (who played 25 minutes as a rookie) would establish themselves as reliable reserve guards worthy of playing time ahead of the guy who finished fifth in Kia MVP voting in 2016-17.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone gave Thomas a nine-game audition off the Nuggets’ bench (playing five guards in their first eight post-All-Star break games), and the results weren’t great. Thomas shot 37 percent and the Nuggets scored just an anemic 96.2 points per 100 possessions in his 140 minutes on the floor. He had a higher free throw rate (25 attempts per 100 shots from the field) than any of the other Denver guards, but that’s probably not enough to make up for his sub-par shooting and defense.
Thomas didn’t play against Minnesota on Tuesday and Malone said that he’d play a shorter rotation “for the time being.” Assuming the Nuggets stay healthy, Thomas will likely go into another offseason having yet to reestablish himself as an impact player.
Morris aiding OKC’s defense
When Jerami Grant missed the Thunder’s last two games before the All-Star break, Patrick Patterson started in Grant’s place and shot 2-for-13 (including 0-for-8 from 3-point range) over the two games. Even if the Thunder were healthy, there was a clear need for Markieff Morris to replace Patterson (who’s had a mostly disappointing two seasons in Oklahoma City) in the Thunder rotation.
Morris has shot just 39 percent with the Thunder, who have scored just 103.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. But the defensive numbers have been good enough that the offense hasn’t hurt them too badly. And the emergence of Grant as a much more productive offensive player than he was last season lessens the need for Morris’ offense. Grant has shot 38 percent on 212 catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts this season, up from 29 percent on just 102 attempts last season.
The issue is that Morris’ neck was hurting enough that he missed the Thunder’s win over Brooklyn on Wednesday.
Hood, Kanter help … somewhat
As noted last week, the Blazers have been playing Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum more minutes together and (typically) starting the second and fourth quarters with both on the bench. That has put additional stress on the Portland reserves, which, for the most part, haven’t performed well in those minutes with both starting guards off the floor. In 462 minutes with Evan Turner on the floor without either Lillard or McCollum, the Blazers have been outscored by 7.2 points per 100 possessions.
So the Blazers (seemingly) addressed a need by trading for Rodney Hood at the deadline and adding Enes Kanter (via the buyout market) at the All-Star break. In his first two games with the Blazers, Kanter totaled 34 points and 17 rebounds in just 41 minutes. Later in the Blazers’ seven-game road trip, Hood scored 27 points (all in the second half) off the bench in a 10-point win in Charlotte.
But in 132 minutes with both Hood and Kanter on the floor so far, the Blazers have been outscored by 14.9 points per 100 possessions, with dreadful numbers (92.4 points scored per 100) on offense. In their overtime loss to the Thunder last week, the Blazers were outscored by 14 points (and shot just 9-for-30 from the field) in a little more than 18 minutes with both Hood and Kanter on the floor. Kanter has registered a negative plus-minus in eight of his nine games with the Blazers, with a game against the Phoenix Suns being the lone exception.
Clippers’ better in post-Harris state
Prior to trading Tobias Harris, despite strong seasons from both Harris and Danilo Gallinari, the Clippers never had a starting lineup that worked. They were outscored by 6.0 points per 100 possessions in 674 total minutes with any five of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Patrick Beverley, Avery Bradley, Harris, Gallinari and Marcin Gortat — the six Clippers that have started the most games — on the floor.
But after Landry Shamet shot 7-for-12 from 3-point range in his first two games off the Clippers’ bench, coach Doc Rivers settled on a new starting lineup of Gilgeous-Alexander, Beverley, Shamet, Gallinari and Ivica Zubac. And that lineup has outscored its opponents by 13.2 points per 100 possessions in its 142 minutes together.
The Clippers have also outscored their opponents by 4.6 points per 100 possessions in 138 minutes with their four main reserves — Lou Williams, Garrett Temple, JaMychal and Montrezl Harrell — on the floor together. After the Harris deal, the Clippers acquired two rotation players (Temple and Green) for one (Bradley). They traded two starters and waived a third (Gortat), but improved their depth and discovered a functioning starting lineup to boot.
Prior to losing to Portland on Tuesday (with Gallinari getting the night off), the Clippers had won five straight games. It was, statistically, their best five-game stretch (plus-13.0 per 100 possessions) of the season and it briefly pushed them into sixth place in the West.
The Clippers have big plans for the summer, but they’re also set to give the Staples Center some playoff games next month. All because they’ve played better after trading Harris than they did before.
Barnes off to slow start with Kings
The Clippers’ surge (along with one of their wins on that five-game winning streak) has been at the expense of the Sacramento Kings, who are 4 1/2 games out of a playoff spot entering a tough, Thursday-Friday back-to-back in Boston and Philadelphia.
Even if they don’t end their 12-year playoff drought, the Kings have had a transformational season. They’ve found an identity and have a talented young core to develop. But their attempt to accelerate their timeline, trading Justin Jackson and Zach Randolph for Harrison Barnes, hasn’t made much of an impact.
Over the 12 games that he’s played with the Kings, Barnes ranks seventh on the team in usage rate and has a true shooting percentage (54.2 percent) below the league average (55.9 percent). The Kings’ new starting lineup has been worse than their previous two starting lineups (with either Iman Shumpert or Bogdan Bogdanovic at small forward), getting outscored by 2.7 points per 100 possessions in its 148 minutes.
The Kings won their first two games with Barnes, but have since lost seven of 10, with the league’s 27th-ranked offense over that stretch. Five of those last 10 games have come against the league’s top 10 teams (including three of them against the top four), but the Kings have scored less than a point per possession with Barnes on the floor in his other seven games with the team.
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