Trade deadline winners and losers: Fultz is free; East contenders shine; Tough look for Lakers

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USA Today Sports

Trade deadline winners and losers: Fultz is free; East contenders shine; Tough look for Lakers

Anthony Davis is still a Pelican.

But just about everything else in the NBA changed this past week. 

Let’s dole out the winners and losers of a crazy trade deadline.

Winners

Philadelphia 76ers
This team is stacked. The Sixers had two needs going into the deadline: A backup center and, more importantly, adding shooting around their three stars. They filled both voids -- and may have picked up a fourth star in the process. Tobias Harris, as I wrote on Wednesday, is a lesser version of Kevin Durant -- a big wing with superb shooting touch. He’s an ideal No. 4, a rare player who can excel on and off the ball. 

They gave up a bunch of promising assets to get the deal done and owner Josh Harris will pay a stiff luxury tax bill soon, but it’s not like Tobias Harris is on the wrong side of 30. He’s just entering his prime. Finally, they needed to move on from the Markelle Fultz experiment. Netting two picks to replenish their draft assets was icing on the cake. This might be the team to beat out East.

Twitter
My thumb hurts. 

Milwaukee Bucks
Executives were all over the map on this one. Most agree that getting a player like Nikola Mirotic, a super-snug fit for the Mike Budenholzer spread offense, is a win. Getting him without giving up a first-round pick is even sweeter.

But the idea of Mirotic may be better than the reality. The impending free agent hasn’t played in two weeks because of a nagging calf strain, an injury likely related to a bad ankle in the same leg. Maybe the Pelicans put him on ice to preserve his trade value, but he has missed about half the season. 

He’ll have to be healthy to defend at a high level in the playoffs. The Celtics badly exploited him two postseasons ago, scoring 116.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. The Pelicans thrived with him there against Portland last postseason. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Bottom line, Mirotic has to get his wheels right. Do that, and a Finals trip may be in the cards.

Los Angeles Clippers
I loved the Harris trade for both sides. The Clippers did a superb job exchanging a four-month rental in Harris into valuable picks and loads of cap space. In Indiana, cap space is overrated. That’s not so in Los Angeles, especially with Steve Ballmer as your owner. The worst place to be in the NBA is stuck in the middle. After shedding salary and loading up on picks, the Clippers have drawn up a compelling blueprint to dodge the hamster wheel of mediocrity.

Toronto Raptors
There are real concerns here that 34-year-old Marc Gasol won’t be able to keep up in the loaded East. But he is so, so good when healthy and able. Stick Kawhi Leonard on the opposing star with Gasol as your backline, and you’re in good shape. That is, if Gasol still has gas left in the tank.

Gasol is a heady defender who may have been coasting the last couple months (or at least Toronto fans hope so). If Gasol isn’t mobile enough to hang with the East’s powers, they can always fall back on Serge Ibaka. The upside -- an elite passing big man who can stretch the floor and annoy the heck out of opponents -- is too good to pass up. Kyle Lowry’s bad back worries me, but they can play through Gasol when Lowry can’t zip around like he used to.

New Orleans Pelicans
Dell Demps could have panicked and thrown a last-ditch Hail Mary to try to save his job (it’s not even clear if it’s on the line). But all along, it made sense to hold onto Davis and play the long game. The Pelicans can slide for their own 2019 pick. Soon, they’ll have clarity on the Zion Williamson sweepstakes. And the Boston Celtics, with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart, can enter the fray July 1. Remember, the Lakers’ trade package won’t magically disappear at the deadline. Demps knew that and played his hand well. 

Boston Celtics
You know the saying, “one step forward, two steps back?” The Celtics took one step back and two steps forward at the trade deadline. The East royalty got better, but the larger outlook is far rosier than it looked a few days ago. Take a deep breath, Boston fans: Davis is still a Pelican. 

Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens still have to walk a fine line going forward. Kyrie Irving needs to be happy. Tatum and Brown need to fully commit to winning despite the looming threat of being Pelicans bait this summer. This won’t be a cake walk, but they have the inside track to landing Davis and positioning themselves as the next superpower if Durant leaves Golden State. Big picture, that’s all that matters.

Golden State Warriors
Maybe Houston got a smidge better with Iman Shumpert. Perhaps Rodney Hood moves Portland’s needle a tad. But Denver, OKC, Portland, San Antonio and Utah basically sat on their hands. The end.

Washington Wizards
Look, there’s a real chance that the Wizards hand Bobby Portis another Otto Porter contract and we’re right back where we started. But until then, I’m going to applaud Ernie Grunfeld and the front office for being pragmatic about the situation. They moved off their hard stance on Porter and actually got under the tax. This feels like a step in the right direction. Check back in four months. A Portis overpay to justify the Porter deal may be on the horizon.

Dallas Mavericks
I recognize that I’m higher on the Kristaps Porzingis trade than most. To me, it’s simple: You need superstars to win championships and they have two players with a real chance to be All-NBA anchors. Doncic is still 19 years old and Porzingis is five months younger than his new teammate Justin Jackson, who was drafted in 2017. 

We don’t have many data points on 7-foot-3 All-Stars recovering from a torn ACL, but sometimes we have to remind ourselves that he was, when healthy, a 7-foot-3 All-Star. And the Mavs will be in no rush to bring him back with Doncic still a teenager. The cap space they created in the Harrison Barnes deal, which could be about $30 million this summer, is the cherry on top. The Mavericks could have a front line of Doncic, Porzingis and DeMarcus Cousins next season. Good thing there’s no salary cap on medical staffs.

Markelle Fultz
He gets a fresh start in Orlando, which may be the most under-the-radar team in the NBA. (They should be under the radar, because they’re not very good). Fultz can just get back to basketball and not deal with the microscope that is the Philadelphia sports scene.

The top two East seeds
Charlotte, Miami, Detroit, Orlando and Washington made lateral moves or no moves at all. Those are five teams fighting for the last two playoffs spots. None of them are .500 or even a win away from that line. For the teams that get the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds at the top of the East, this is as close to a first-round bye as it gets.

Losers

Los Angeles Lakers
We’re about two months away from the Sacramento Kings taking LeBron James’ spot in the playoffs. That is a sentence I never dreamed I would type. Maybe if I was talking about his son, LeBron James Jr., in five years, but here we are. It’s a very real possibility.

I still wouldn’t bet against James going on a rampage and single-handedly earning the West’s final playoff spot. But James, after missing 17 games, is looking human. Kuzma is shooting 30.2 percent on 3s. Brandon Ingram won’t shoot 3s. Lonzo Ball is allergic to 1s. JaVale McGee is the only player on the Lakers’ roster not named LeBron James with an above-average player efficiency rating (which is 15.0). That is not a typo. Maybe Carmelo Anthony, who hasn’t played a pro basketball game in three months, is the answer. I’m not banking on it.

Fifthteenth guys on playoff teams
The buyout market appears to be more robust than ever. Contenders can choose from a lot that could include all of the following players: Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris, Robin Lopez, Zach Randolph, Carmelo Anthony, Enes Kanter, Dewayne Dedmon, Jeremy Lin, Wayne Ellington, Milos Teodosic, Michael Beasley, Shelvin Mack and Greg Monroe. Of that group, Lopez figures to have the biggest impact for contending teams.

Mike Conley
After fighting back from Achilles surgery, it would have been cool to see Conley find his way to a playoff team in Indiana or Utah. Heck, it’d be cool to see him in Detroit with Blake Griffin fighting for a playoff spot. Conley could go down as the best player never to make an All-Star team. By not going to an Eastern Conference team this week, those chances dwindled even further. I’d be stunned if Conley isn’t moved this summer as a free-agency backup plan.

How Dame Lillard and the rest of the NBA left Russell Westbrook behind

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NBC Sports

How Dame Lillard and the rest of the NBA left Russell Westbrook behind

After every summer workout, Damian Lillard knows what time it is. Exhausted. Legs burning. Soaked in sweat. It’s time for one final drill: An array of 3-point shots so deep that he’s stepping on the halfcourt logo. A source close to Lillard says the Portland star purposely finishes each of his offseason workouts practicing this exact shot when he’s most fatigued. One day, when there’s nothing left in the tank, he’d have it ready.

That day came Tuesday night. Lillard, in his 45th minute on the floor, eliminated the Oklahoma City Thunder with a historic 37-footer over an outstretched Paul George at the buzzer, making him a perfect 5-for-5 in the series on shots at least 30 feet away from the basket. Once upon a time, these shots would get players benched. George himself said after the game, “It was a bad shot.” Not for Lillard. As we’ve chronicled all season in this space, Lillard is comfortable from way out there, making 39 percent of these 30-foot moon shots on the season. It’s gotten to the point where they’re selling “Logo Lillard” tees.

The Thunder tried everything to not let Lillard shoot -- double-teams, traps, a 6-foot-8 Defensive Player of the Year candidate -- but it didn’t work. Lillard was pulling up from just about everywhere inside halfcourt and rendering the Thunder’s defense obsolete. How do you defend that? 

We used to talk this way about Russell Westbrook. But the NBA has evolved so quickly, it left Westbrook behind. For the third straight season, Westbrook shot his way out of the first round of the playoffs, inefficiently and excessively. The Blazers knew Westbrook’s lack of range would eventually get the best of him. Coaches pleaded “Let Russ Shoot,” and Westbrook capitulated. 

The NBA still doesn’t know what to do with guys like Lillard, but they know what to do with Westbrook. More than ever, the NBA is being separated by guys who can shoot and guys who can’t.

Westbrook is a rebel to his core. His Nike catchphrase is “Why not?,” after all. The Mountain Dew pitchman openly says he doesn’t care what people think. He plays like the turbo button is stuck in the on position, and once played with a broken face that left him with a crater in his cheek that could fit a golf ball.

But that rebellious attitude is getting the worst of him. For the third straight postseason, Westbrook’s shooting percentages were in the thirties. Worse, he hasn’t won a road playoff game since Kevin Durant left in 2016. The Blazers were giving him so much space on the perimeter, you could park a car between him and his defender. The Thunder trapped Lillard with multiple defenders on the perimeter, but the Blazers effectively trapped Westbrook with zero defenders. The strategy worked. In this series, Westbrook shot 27.6 percent on mid-range jumpers and 32.4 percent on 3-pointers. 

Normally, Westbrook could counter the Rajon Rondo treatment with sheer athleticism. But it’s fair to question if he has the same bounce he once did. In September, he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee and struggled to regain his rhythm after missing the preseason. It’s the same knee that required three surgeries in a nine-month span earlier in his career. He still averaged a triple-double in 2018-19, but his true-shooting percentage of 50.1 percent marked his lowest figure since 2009-10 and it’s declined in each of the last three seasons. 

League executives and coaches have long wondered how Westbrook, who turns 31 years old in November, and his wrecking-ball game would age without a reliable jumper in today’s NBA. As this series against Portland so clearly underlined, it doesn’t look promising. 

In this series, Westbrook struggled to get to the rack and finish at a high level. He missed over half his layups, making just 48.8 percent of his shots at the rim (league average is about 60 percent). Westbrook finished with zero dunks in the series and his transition efficiency ranked dead-last among players with at least 20 transition plays, per NBA.com tracking. Normally, we could chalk that up to small sample size, but Westbrook ranked last in transition efficiency in the regular season among the 27 players with at least 250 transition plays. This is more than a blip.

Westbrook used to compensate for his low-percentage shots with elite foul-drawing ability, barreling into defenders and routinely drawing a whistle. In the 2017-18 playoffs, Westbrook averaged 14.0 free-throws per game. Last year, that rate fell to 6.7 trips, down to just 5.2 this postseason. 

With analytics emphasized more than ever, points are becoming harder to come by for Westbrook. He’s dunking less, getting to the foul line less and missing more layups than he makes. These are all the markings of a player either in decline or in the wrong era, perhaps both. George’s arrival was supposed to weed out Westbrook’s most inefficient shots and make him more effective. But the opposite has happened: George’s efficient shot has only made Westbrook’s weaknesses more glaring.

* * *

Lillard is not equipped with Westbrook’s turbo-boosters. Listed at 6-foot-3 and less than 200 pounds, Lillard is one of the smaller players in the NBA. Often times in this series, Westbrook gave Lillard the “rock the baby” gesture aimed to belittle Lillard.

"Yeah, you got little kids, you got little babies, put 'em to sleep," Westbrook told ESPN in October. "That's what happens. Little guards, you gotta rock 'em."

Lillard doesn’t overwhelm with his size. In fact, he was equally inefficient at the rim as Westbrook, shooting 47.4 percent on his 38 attempts in the restricted area. But Lillard has a counter. 

The difference is that Lillard has put in long hours behind closed doors and developed a knockdown jumper in case he can’t get to the rim as easily as he used to. In this series, Lillard made 48.1 percent of his 3-pointers and was a mind-numbing 10-of-15 from 28 feet and beyond. It’s something you can’t readily defend, as George found out the hard way. 

Lillard was facing a nearly impossible task there in the closing seconds: Find a good shot against George. These moments are extremely difficult to begin with. Potential go-ahead shots in the final 10 seconds in the last five postseasons have gone in only 26 percent of the time (17-of-64), according to data from Basketball Reference. That was the baseline from which Lillard was working. Out of nowhere, he created a shot he has made nearly 40 percent this season.

That range has made Lillard a lethal player all season. ESPN’s real plus-minus metric, which estimates player on-court impact, tells us that Lillard generated the fifth-most wins in the NBA this season. The Blazers boasted the third most-efficient offense while the Thunder ranked 16th. It’s much easier to build a healthy offense around guys like Lillard. 

Lillard’s long-range jumper serves like David’s slingshot in a game of goliaths. With diminutive ball-handlers like Lillard, Trae Young and Stephen Curry bombing away from deep, it’s easy to see how this might be the future of the NBA. This season, a record-breaking total of 1,008 shots were taken from 30 to 40 feet, up from 860 from last season and nearly double the total of 525 from 2016-17, per Basketball Reference. Now, even Brook Lopez shoots them from way out there.

If they didn’t watch it live, millions of young fans around the world woke up this morning and saw what Lillard did. The breathtaking shot, the stoic wave, the meme-ripe stare into the camera. That’s a transcendent play that has the power to influence a generation. While Westbrook fades yet again, Lillard is embodying what’s next.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Key to unlocking Ben Simmons? Follow the Giannis model

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NBC Sports

Key to unlocking Ben Simmons? Follow the Giannis model

Ben Simmons looked like a future MVP in Game 2 against the Brooklyn Nets. A blur in transition. A wall on defense. A magician in space. Heck, he looked like Giannis Antetokounmpo out there. Simmons whirled his way to 18 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds in just 30 minutes of action. So why can’t he do that all the time?

It’s a question we have all thought when watching the 22-year-old. The key to unlocking that Simmons isn’t necessarily about him or his mindset. More likely, it’s about who’s around him. The Game 2 supernova is what you get when you surround Simmons with guys who can shoot. 

It’s the Giannis model.

With Tobias Harris and J.J. Redick struggling in Game 1, coach Brett Brown could have moved away from floor-spacers and given T.J. McConnell more minutes to help set up teammates. Instead, Brown doubled down on shooting and dropped McConnell from the rotation, handing Jimmy Butler the backup point guard duties. The result: the Sixers set a franchise record for scoring in a playoff game (145) and tied the NBA record for scoring in any quarter (51 in the third, tying the 1962 Lakers). With spacing prioritized, Simmons thrived.

That gamble is more or less what the Milwaukee Bucks have done this season with Antetokounmpo, who might win MVP without having a reliable 3-point shot, and their stretch five, Brook Lopez. The Bucks have proved you can win the regular season playing that way, with their older, longer version of Simmons. But the larger question lingers: 

Can you build a champion in today’s NBA with a non-shooting superstar?  It’s a riddle the Oklahoma City Thunder are still trying to solve with Russell Westbrook and it will follow both Simmons and Antetokounmpo throughout this year’s playoffs.

* * *

Elon Musk may be the only person with a larger obsession with space than Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer. About a month ago, the frontrunner for Coach of the Year award joined The Habershow podcast (subscribe!) and humored me with my half-sarcastic question. 

Is your offense simply to give Giannis the ball and get out of the way?

“I do believe there is something to be said for simplicity,” Budenholzer said with a laugh. “Sometimes, things that are the simplest tend to be the best. I know it’s a little bit of humor, but there is certainly a kernel of truth in that. We wanted to give him as much space [as possible] and get out of the way.”

Budenholzer happily lets his 7-foot center, Lopez, stand 35 feet away from the hoop and launch it. Same goes for forwards Nikola Mirotic and Ersan Ilyasova (a former teammate of Simmons). The Bucks literally took a thousand more 3-pointers than last season -- or 1,110 to be exact. They also won more games than any other team during the regular season.

On Monday, Brown took a page out of Budenholzer’s book and evened the series at one by putting a premium on space. Brown dropping McConnell from the rotation is telling. McConnell is many things; the most tenured Sixer, a talented tablesetter, the team’s “heart and soul” according to Jimmy Butler. But he is not a 3-point shooter.

Because of that weakness, defenses could sag off both McConnell and Simmons in the halfcourt, loading up on precious real estate in the paint. This season, Simmons’ field-goal percentage dropped from 57.8 percent to 50.5 percent with McConnell saddled up next to him, per NBA.com data and the Sixers were minus-72 with the duo playing together. Conversely, when Simmons was on the floor without McConnell, the Sixers outscored opponents by 188 points. There’s a reason Simmons’ most-efficient lineups are when he’s paired with an effective 3-point shooter. Spoiler alert: Markelle Fultz and Simmons did not work.

Neither did the Lakers. 

Prioritizing space is a lesson former Lakers president Magic Johnson didn’t seem to take into account when building around LeBron James. In fact, Johnson went the other way, loading up on non-shooting playmakers -- on purpose. During a July conference call with reporters, Johnson said added ball-handlers like Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson so that James “doesn’t have to make every play.” He later went on an ESPN broadcast during Summer League and explained that he and his staff did their homework and “we saw all the teams in the playoffs that had shooting, they got beat.”

As I detailed on the BIG Number recently, Rondo turned out to be LeBron’s kryptonite. Like McConnell and Simmons in Philly, the healthiest offenses in LakerLand were units that didn’t feature James alongside a ball-dominant non-shooter. Though Rondo had taken more 3s this season, his defender rarely got a hand up, if he guarded Rondo at all. That crippled the LeBron-led Lakers as much as the injury bug. One wonders what the Lakers would look like if they kept Lopez instead of signing Rondo for nearly three times his salary.

Take a look at what’s happening with Oklahoma City, which is 0-8 in road playoff games since Kevin Durant left in 2016. Like James, Simmons and Antetokounmpo, a Westbrook-led offense needs sharpshooters to unclog the paint in a slowed-down playoff setting. Unfortunately for the Thunder, those players are in short supply. Alex Abrines, a solid wing shooter the last three seasons, was waived in February with undisclosed personal issues and Patrick Patterson has had trouble cracking the rotation, often leaving Paul George as their only respected 3-point shooter. 

While Milwaukee exclusively plays 3-point shooters -- Lopez, Mirotic and Ilyasova -- at the center position next to Antetokounmpo, the Thunder have chosen the polar opposite approach with Westbrook. Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel are two paint-dwellers who haven’t even attempted a shot outside 20 feet this season.

Respect is key. By the percentages, OKC’s stretch-four, Jerami Grant, has developed into a pretty strong 3-point shooter with a conversion rate of 39.2 percent this season, but defenses still don’t respect him. According to NBA.com data, a whopping 89 percent of Grant’s 3-pointers this season were termed “wide-open,” which is right up there with Draymond Green’s league-leading 93 percent. In this series, the Blazers have been parking Grant’s defender near Westbrook, George and Adams, choosing to live with the results. Grant, with little gravitational pull to begin with, has missed all eight of his 3-point attempts. 

Without effective spacers, the Thunder are on the verge of their third straight first-round exit. Outside of George, the Thunder are shooting 4-of-39 from deep and Westbrook is shooting 6-of-27 in the halfcourt, with zero of his signature Earth-shaking dunks. It’s no wonder why Philadelphia targeted bigs who can shoot -- Tobias Harris, Mike Scott and Boban Marjanovic -- at the trade deadline.

* * *

Yes, I said Boban Marjanovic, the 7-foot-3 center who can practically dunk without jumping. 

One of the great revelations of the Philadelphia-Brooklyn series is Marjanovic’s jumper. The Nets are ignoring Marjanovic on the perimeter in this series to a comical degree, his defender often standing under the rim while the Serbian tower stands at the top of the key. Marjanovic has made six of his nine jumpers this series, each bucket sending the Wells Fargo Center into a gleeful frenzy. Marjanovic has sneaky range, making nine of his nineteen 19 long 2s this season and four of his 10 3-pointers in the regular season. Bobi can shoot. Respect may soon follow.

Marjanovic’s emergence reminds me of what Aron Baynes did during Boston’s surprising playoff run last season and what Lopez has done over the last couple years. We’re not used to seeing 7-footers launch from deep. Four seasons ago, 7-footers took 1,966 three-pointers, per Basketball Reference data. This season, 7-footers fired up more than twice that amount, taking 4,425 3-pointers as a whole, the most in NBA history. What’s more, those giants made 34.7 percent, a few ticks below Kevin Durant’s 35.3 percent mark. It’s not a gimmick anymore. It’s a weapon.

For Philly, the implications are clear: If Marjanovic can reliably knock down jumpers and pull his defender out of the paint, it’s one less big man that Simmons has to hurdle en route to the rim. 

* * *

It’s obvious that Simmons would be much better with a reliable jumper. There’s still plenty of time. He’s only 22 years old but is already facing criticism as if he’s deep into his career. Magic Johnson didn’t win his first MVP until he was 27. When he started regularly taking 3-pointers in his age-29 season, he won his second MVP and then his third. It’s not hard to see Simmons following a similar path. 

It’s also why Joel Embiid’s 3-point stroke is so intriguing. Embiid is a career 31.5-percent 3-point shooter -- not sharp enough to demand a hard close-out every time he stands back there. He’s the most efficient post-up big man in the game, per Synergy tracking, but pulling his defender out to the 3-point line can have its advantages. In the impressive 130-125 win over the Bucks back in March, Embiid took 13 three-pointers, making four. In that game, all of Simmons’ basket attacks came in transition with either Embiid trailing or on the perimeter. Simmons’ lone jumper in that game came when Embiid was parked under the basket (he missed).

Embiid and Marjanovic may have the potential to be spacers for Simmons, joining the East’s superpowers who are already loading up on stretch 5s. The Raptors snatched up Marc Gasol, who has made over 300 3-pointers in his last three seasons. The Celtics have stretched Baynes to join Al Horford as as a shooting big. The Bucks have Lopez spacing for Antetokounmpo and that formation might seal Antetokounmpo’s MVP. It could also win them a title.

Simmons and Embiid aren’t a perfect fit in the halfcourt. Hardly any star pairings are. But we can see what Lopez has done for Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee and the distinct limitations of the Thunder’s approach around Westbrook. If Embiid or Marjanovic can pull their defender away from Simmons’ path a few more times a game, it may be the difference between a great team and a champion.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.