On February 5th, the Toronto Raptors beat the Philadelphia 76ers 119-107 on Philly’s homecourt. Landry Shamet and Mike Muscala started that game for the Sixers and played a combined 66 minutes. Within a few hours, both players were off the roster.
That night, Philly traded Shamet, Muscala, Wilson Chandler, and numerous draft picks to the L.A. Clippers for Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, and Mike Scott. Two days later, the Raptors acquired Marc Gasol for Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, and a pick. The same day as the Gasol trade, the Milwaukee Bucks acquired Nikola Mirotic.
In a three-day span, each of the East’s top-3 seeds went all in and changed everything we would think about the 2019 NBA playoffs. They dealt a combined total of nine draft picks in those three trades. Forget the future. NBA teams know that championship windows are short, with injury luck and the revolving door of modern free agency making it nearly impossible to contend for a title for years on end. The Golden State Warriors are the exception, not the rule – and even their run won’t last forever. With LeBron James finally out of the Eastern Conference, the front offices in Philly, Toronto, and Milwaukee decided that now’s the time to strike.
One round into the 2019 NBA playoffs, and it’s played out just as everyone expected. Not only have the East’s top teams won, but they’ve absolutely crushed their competition. The conference’s four top seeds lost just two of their 18 combined first-round games. After April 13 – the first day of the playoffs – those teams went a perfect 16-0. The initial home losses by Philly and Toronto proved to be anomalous.
Out of the East’s four first-round winners, only one stood pat at the trade deadline: the Boston Celtics. The Celtics slogged through a seemingly miserable season with constant media drama and turmoil. As the preseason favorite to win the East, perhaps Boston’s biggest problem was that it had too many solid players and not enough minutes to go around. Marcus Smart’s injury will hurt the Celtics defensively in the coming round, but to start the playoffs, it created opportunities for others to succeed. Boston swept the Indiana Pacers in the first round and might just be peaking at the right time. There’s a reason so many people – including myself, somewhat of a Celtic hater – were so high on this team.
Let’s look at the bigger picture. A dozen All-Stars or borderline All-Stars will play in the Eastern Conference semi-finals. Five of those players – Khris Middleton, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, and Kyrie Irving – are free agents this summer.
It’s been recited as fact almost all season – or at least from the moment Victor Oladipo was ruled out for the year. It’s finally coming to fruition. The Bucks, Raptors, 76ers, and Celtics will battle it out in the second round. Two of them will emerge victoriously, and just one will earn the honor of being the first non-LeBron squad to win the Eastern Conference since 2010. Nine years ago.
At least two – and possibly three – of those teams will be very, very disappointed in a month or so. A conference finals loss would be tough to stomach, but perhaps not a total disaster. A second-round exit would be outright unacceptable for any of the East contenders.
There’s a compelling argument to be made that these are four of the six best teams in the NBA, along with the Warriors and the Houston Rockets. These next two rounds will be a bloodbath in the East. For one of them, the reward will very much be worth it. The stakes are enormous.
Make the NBA Finals, and Kawhi Leonard might be much more likely to stay put.
Make the Finals, and the October engagement with Kyrie Irving should lead to a wedding after all.
Make the Finals, and maybe Giannis Antetokounmpo – likely this season’s MVP and the best player in the NBA for years to come – is a Buck for life.
Make the Finals, and Philly’s two major mid-season gambles are vindicated. Parents would tell their children bedtime stories about Sam Hinkie’s Process for decades to come.
In the Eastern Conference, at least, the real 2019 NBA playoffs start now.