The whirlwind of the trade season has just blown past. Some teams are fortified, others stay status quo, while a few hang in limbo.
With the All-Star weekend over, the teams are back to battle mode. The top tier teams are now gearing up to finish the regular season strong while the second tier teams are making their final playoff push for a better seeding.
It is timely to take stock of the top two teams who are not only winners for the trade season but also poised to make a deep run into the postseason and challenge the Golden State Warriors for the trophy.
First off, the Toronto Raptors did a well-calculated move in acquiring Marc Gasol in an exchange with some bench players.
The move to bring in a former All-Star and Defensive Player of the Year, coupled with his many years of playoff experience, would bring veteran leadership and stable foundation for the restricted area.
Marc Gasol has been enjoying graceful aging in his game with a solid year thus far, averaging per-game statistics of 15.2 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 4.5 assists, as well as anchoring a consistently stellar defense. This is exactly what Toronto needs to challenge and make Embiid uncomfortable. Gasol is known for his precise footwork, excellent box-out, early anticipation and playmaking from the post. This instantly raises the quality of the Raptors second unit to deal with premier
The Toronto Raptors are well aware of their tightest foe, the Philadelphia 76ers, and Milwaukee Bucks.
Team President Masai Ujiri and General Manager Bobby Webster understood that come playoff times, Joel Embiid from the 76ers will dominate and tear apart the Raptors at the post area as Jonas Valanciunas is at best an above average center who would dwindle under the superior skills and power of Joel Embiid. The case is different if Marc Gasol handles the position, who understands how to slow down any center with his ‘Grid-and-Grind’ tempo.
Giannis Antetokounmpo from the Bucks posts another type of threat due to his mere explosiveness and athleticism. Valanciunas is nothing near a worthy challenge for Antetokounmpo. To combat that sheer brute strength and speed, the Raptor need to call upon the smart, composed and preemptive play of Marc Gasol.
The trade was also prudent in the sense that the Raptors did not have to sacrifice much. Memphis acquired only Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright and C.J. Miles, who are good third unit bench players. The Raptors effectively shaved off valuable cap space next season as well. Delon Wright is considered a cheap, young player with limited upside, so it was not anything that would impede the future. The giveaway of the 2024 second round draft pick was also a small price to pay.
With these trades strengthening the Raptors more than anything, they look like an upgraded team after the trade deadline which makes their already elite status more pronounced. One can only say that the Raptors look good as a top two team that has a high chance to emerge to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals this year.
Second consideration, the Philadelphia 76ers already looked formidable in the East. After their trade deadline moves, the 76ers look deadly and seriously a favorite.
The team needed just one more solid starter to pull themselves even further from the rest of the pack in a top-heavy Eastern Conference.
76ers acquired Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic and Mike Scott whereas the Clippers received Landry Shamet, Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala, 2020 first-round pick, 2021 unprotected first-round pick from Miami Heat, 2021 second-round pick, 2023 second-round pick.
Tobias Harris couldn't have found a better time to arrive. As part of a mega-blockbuster deal on that fateful Wednesday morning, this former Clippers' best player is averaging career highs with 21 points and eight rebounds per game this year.
Strategically, this is a fabulous trade for Philadelphia because Harris, a 26-year-old who is in his prime, is due for his huge contract extension and you can bet your chips that Harris will play his hearts out to try to establish himself this playoff as potential near maximum contract player.
From a coaching stand-point, Tobias Harris will need to slide into the power forward slot due to the glut of talent. However, this is superb because his ball handling and playmaking will provide a huge upgrade over Wilson Chandler, who was sent packing to the Los Angeles Clippers. Tobias Harris, after joining Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, and J.J. Redick, forms a huge starting five for the 76ers. Two All-Stars (Embiid and Simmons), two borderline All-Stars (Butler and Harris) and one veteran who has been to countless playoffs, including a Western Conference Finals.
Now, the 76ers are legitimate favorites with the best starting lineup in the NBA, save for Golden State. They look poised to defeat the currently disjointed Boston Celtics (if they do not get their act together fast enough) and post a slightly superior challenge against the Toronto Raptors. The Milwaukee Bucks are still tender in their debut as a team (including the new coach) and would likely be lesser favorites compared to either Raptors or 76ers.
To further bolster their case, Philadelphia 76ers also defeated the Golden State Warriors in their recent duel. The 76ers shooting ability and their equal defensive prowess will put them in good stead to be among the top two in the league (with Raptors) to be contending to topple the Warriors in the Finals.
With the clock winding down to the final 20 plus games, let us watch how these two teams shape up their fate in the upcoming NBA playoffs.