Billy Fitzpatrick ’20
Chief Sports Editor
With the dust settling after last week’s NBA trade deadline and All-Star Weekend giving us a chance to take a step back, new questions are emerging as recent developments have provided answers to those that dominated the first four months of the NBA season. After the Pelicans played the Lakers like a fiddle at the trade deadline, where will Anthony Davis eventually land? What kind of package will the Celtics put together for the disgruntled superstar from New Orleans come summertime? Where will other stars (Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler) be playing next year? On the court, can anyone stop the Warriors from taking another Larry O’Brien Trophy back to the Bay? Right now, nobody knows the answers to these all-important questions. (Well, except for that last one – nobody is stopping Golden State this year.)
Here, we try to identify the five players whose play throughout the rest of the season will have the biggest impact on player movement this summer, which figures to be one of the most pivotal off-seasons in recent memory.
Kyrie Irving – Boston Celtics
In the age of player empowerment in which superstars have more say over where they get to play than at any other time in league history, it is ironic that Davis’ attempt to get out of New Orleans hasn’t given him total control over the situation that he may have expected. Instead, the most important player in the Davis saga is Irving. It is an open secret that Celtics President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge dreams of pairing up Irving and Davis as the cornerstones of the next Boston sports dynasty. However, there are rumblings that Irving has developed wandering eyes and the mercurial point guard himself has expressed frustration at leading a young team. If Boston can put a shaky first half of the season behind them, compete in the revamped Eastern Conference, and reach the NBA Finals, perhaps Irving will be convinced that Boston is the right place for him to play out his prime and Ainge throws the kitchen sink at New Orleans for Davis. But if Irving misses time and the young guns (Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown) try to take the reigns in Irving’s stead, maybe Kyrie looks for greener pastures, Ainge hesitates to give up Tatum for Davis, and the Lakers swoop in for Davis instead. The fate of at least three franchises – Boston, New Orleans, and the Lakers – largely lies in Irving’s ability to stay healthy the rest of the season and whether he wants to stay in Boston for the foreseeable future.
Kawhi Leonard – Toronto Raptors
For an All-NBA-caliber player in the final year of his contract, there has been remarkably little chatter over Leonard’s future (which both the no-frills Leonard and his employer will be happy about). The former Finals MVP is having a career year by many measures as the focal point of the new-look Raptors and is still considered one of the best two-way players in the league. Nobody knows exactly what Leonard’s long-term plans are, although the Clippers are considered a favorite to sign the Southern California native come July. Toronto GM Masai Ujiri sacrificed depth and youth at the deadline in trading for veteran center Marc Gasol, a clear win-now move designed to get the Raps to their first NBA Finals and convince Kawhi to call the North his home for the next several years. Nobody doubts The Claw’s ability, but if he can elevate his game this spring to alpha-dog levels, maybe Toronto escapes the East and Leonard feels comfortable staying in Toronto. If not, perhaps the Clippers sign him and LeBron and Co. have a legitimate crosstown rival on their hands.
Chris Paul – Houston Rockets
At age 33, Paul is not in the same category as the other players on this list in terms of box score production. In his 14th year in the league, he is posting a career-low in scoring and the third-lowest assist average of his career. Yet, less than nine months ago the whole league was saying “If only CP3 were healthy…” after the Warriors topped the Rockets in a seven-game series in which Paul missed the last two games with a hamstring injury. It’s reasonable to think that Houston would have topped Golden State and reached the NBA Finals had Paul been available for Games 6 and 7. While this year’s Houston team is less stout defensively and less deep than last year’s iteration, there’s no reason to think that a healthy and effective Paul come playoff-time couldn’t propel Houston to the Finals. While James Harden is doing things the likes of which we haven’t seen since Wilt Chamberlain, the MVP favorite has always needed help to get it done in the playoffs. Paul can be the secondary ball-handler who gets a bucket all by himself, which Harden will need in close games down the stretch when the fatigue of launching 15+ three-pointers a game sets in. If Paul leads Houston to the Finals, what does that mean for Golden State? Maybe an otherwise complacent Durant decides to stay and the Warriors core sticks together for another few years. But if Houston cannot challenge the Warriors and Golden State wins another championship, perhaps Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green get bored, call it quits in the Bay, and sign elsewhere. It’s quite easy to see just how important Paul is in determining the fates of Golden State’s impending free agents.
Ben Simmons – Philadelphia 76ers
Tuesday night, Boston handed Philadelphia a soul-crushing defeat at home reminiscent of last season’s Eastern Conference Semifinals series in which the Celtics completely outplayed and outcoached the upstart Sixers. Coming into Tuesday’s contest, Philly was firing on all cylinders after acquiring Tobias Harris at the trade deadline, low morale in Boston had seeped out of the locker room and into the media, and Irving had suffered a knee injury that kept him from suiting up against Philadelphia. Yet, led by Gordon Hayward’s best game of the season, Boston completely turned these narratives on their heads and reminded Philadelphia that Boston still owns them. This beckons the question that has been floating about the NBA rumor mill quietly for some time: can this Philly core win together? The fits – basketball and otherwise – among Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Jimmy Butler are shaky. If Philly gets embarrassed in the playoffs again, does GM Elton Brand put either Embiid or Simmons on the trading block? Embiid, an All-Star Starter this weekend, seems to be untouchable considering his all-around production. Simmons, while a tantalizing prospect himself, has gaping holes in his game (namely, his lack of shooting) that makes him the more likely piece to get shipped out of Philly. In this sense, the rest of the season (especially the playoffs, where he struggled mightily last spring) is an audition to the Sixers brain trust. If Brand does make him available, would the Pelicans be interested in a Simmons-for-Davis swap? Do Butler and Harris look to sign elsewhere if dysfunction hits?
Kevin Love – Cleveland Cavaliers
Yes, Kevin Love. Yes, the guy who has played in just six games this season. Yes, the guy who hasn’t been considered a superstar since his days in Minnesota. And, yes, you guessed it, the guy who plays for the third-worst team in the league. Alright, I’m kind of cheating here, but Love is important for the future of the league so far as his mid-season return from injury impacts the race for Zion Williamson. Now that he’s back, will the Cavs win more games and therefore hurt their lottery odds? Does Love’s return open the door for the Knicks to solidify themselves as the worst team in the league, therefore helping New York’s lottery odds? This is important because New York is likely the only team in contention for the first pick in June’s NBA Draft that would consider trading the first overall pick. The Knicks could package that pick, along with some of their young prospects, to New Orleans for Davis, a trade which would surely have ramifications for franchises beyond just New York and New Orleans. So, no, Kevin Love is not about to lead the Cavaliers to a fifth straight NBA Finals appearance (I bet you forgot about that streak), but he is potentially important in determining who gets the chance to take Zion, a potential face of the league in a post-LeBron NBA, this June.
Photo courtesy of ESPN.com