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Beating Cleveland: How Teams Beside The Celtics Can Do It

Frank Gunn/CP

With the Cavaliers in shambles, the Eastern Conference is finally wide-open. Some moves that can propel teams (not named the Celtics) over the top:

Simply put, the Cleveland Cavaliers have not lived up to expectations midway through the season. The Kyrie Irving trade that seemingly every fan and analyst applauded has been a failure; the team plays zero defense, allowing a league-fifth worst 109.8 points per game; and to top it all off, the Cavs just lost Kevin Love, their second-highest scorer and most efficient rebounder, for six to eight weeks with a broken hand. LeBron and Co. find themselves in unfamiliar territory at 29-20 and third in the East behind Kyrie’s Boston Celtics and the Toronto Raptors. While GM Koby Altman figures to be active (and possibly desperate) at the deadline on Feb. 8, lets take a look at what other teams in the East should do as they gear up for a playoff push. 

*In my opinion, the Celtics are pretty much set-up for success. A Gordon Hayward return is the only thing that can take them to the next level.*

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    (AP Photo/Darron Cummings, File)

    Milwaukee Bucks

    At 27-22, the Bucks have had a bit of a whirlwind this season. A team that many expected to take another step forward on the back of superstar Giannis “The Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo has not fared as well as many have expected.

    Earlier in the season, the team traded for point guard Eric Bledsoe in hopes of adding another weapon on offense. Most recently, the team cut ties with head coach Jason Kidd, citing the fact that Kidd “didn’t give the Bucks the best opportunity to succeed.” However, since Kidd’s firing, the Bucks have gone 4-0 and look like they’ve found new life, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

    For the season overall, the Bucks are 20th in the NBA with a defensive rating of 106.7, but over the past four games, the rating has jumped to 97.4 by working harder to force turnovers and getting out on three-point shooters. The team also figures to have a major help on the way when Jabari Parker returns from his second ACL tear for Friday’s game against the New York Knicks. 

    Still, the Bucks lack depth in two key areas: three-point shooting and rebounding. With the three-point shot having become so vital to today’s NBA game, it seems only logical for the Bucks to target a shooter at the deadline. Unfortunately for them, with a current payroll of nearly $119mil and $103mil guaranteed for next season, the team does not have a ton of flexibility. They will likely need to unload John Henson, plus more in any deal they make.

    Possible Targets:

    1. Justin Holiday (Chicago Bulls, $9 million over two years, 120 three-pointers made)

    2. Rodney Hood (Utah Jazz, UFA after this season, 97 three-pointers made)

    3. Joe Harris (Brooklyn Nets, UFA after this season, 94 three-pointers made)

    Major Splash: Hassan Whiteside or DeAndre Jordan

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    (ESPN Trade Machine)

    It is no secret that both DeAndre Jordan and Hassan Whiteside could be on the move sooner rather than later. Amid the Clippers trading Blake Griffin to the Pistons, they seem to be willing to unload their talent to accumulate draft picks and prepare for the future. The package for DeAndre will have to include at least one first-round pick, and there certainly won’t be a shortage of suitors.

    With Whiteside, the Heat have made it clear recently that they are ready to unleash rookie big Bam Adebayo out of Kentucky. Bam has played well when given the opportunity this season, and Pat Riley has never been afraid to make major moves. This seems more unlikely, largely due to the fact that the Bucks compete in the East with the Heat, but don’t sleep on it just yet.

    Miami Heat

    The Heat stand only a half game behind the Cavaliers at 29-21 and are currently fourth in the East. Defensively, the team has been a juggernaut all season, allowing the third-best 101.1 points per game. #HeatCulture really is a movement, and the organization seems to have one of the tightest bonds in the entire NBA.

    The Heat have proven you do not need a perennial All-Star (let alone an All-Star at all) to be successful. Still, the team ranks 28th in the NBA in scoring and certainly need to bolster themselves on that side of the ball if they want to compete. While they have over $129 million in salaries this season and $144 million guaranteed next season, as well as not having a first-round pick, the team has reportedly been taking calls on center Hassan Whiteside in attempts to improve their offense.

    Possible Targets:

    1. Jordan Clarkson (14.6 PPG, 45.5% shooting, roughly $37 million remaining over three years)

    2. Courtney Lee (13.4 PPG, 45.9% shooting, roughly $36 million remaining over three years)

    3. Lou Williams (23.5 PPG, 44.3% shooting, UFA after this season)

    Major Splash: CJ McCollum

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    (ESPN Trade Machine)

    While trading for any of these players will require the Heat being creative (and likely needing a third-team) each player can create a dynamic that can drastically improve their offense. Lou Williams is having one of the best seasons of his career for the Clippers, who are looking to make drastic changes. Courtney Lee and Jordan Clarkson are also having solid seasons for the Knicks and Lakers respectively, and Clarkson likely won’t be too costly with the Lakers looking to make major FA pushes this offseason (cough cough LeBron, Paul George). 

    The most intriguing move here is CJ McCollum. As previously stated, the Heat are looking into possibly moving Hassan Whiteside to open up a spot for Bam Adebayo. In Portland, star point guard Damian Lillard recently met with owner Paul Allen to discuss the future of the franchise. While the Lillard/McCollum duo has fared decently well, the team has yet to take a major step forward (28-22, sixth in the West). Might a McCollum for Whiteside swap make sense for both teams? Imagine Lillard and Whiteside on the same team from Portland’s point of view. This option is one to definitely keep an eye on.

    Toronto Raptors 

    Over the past few years, the Raptors have done everything in their power to get over the hump and beat the Cavaliers. With the recent rise of the Celtics, they now have two “powerhouses” standing in their way. The team is built on their core backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and supporting cast of Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas, and CJ Miles, but are still seemingly one “missing piece” away.

    The team does not have many weaknesses (third in PPG and 10th in OPPG), so it’s really about adding pieces to go on a run down the stretch. With $117.5 mil in salary this season and already $124.6 mil tied into next season, the team needs to be open to potential rentals. The problem is they do not have their first-round pick, so they may need to get creative and be open to moving future picks. However, with a team that’s this close, it may be worth it for Masai Ujiri to mortgage the farm a bit.

    Possible Targets:

    1. Julius Randle (13.7 PPG, 7.2 REB, roughly $4.1mil in final yr of contract)

    2. Lou Williams (**Former Raptor**, 23.5 PPG, 44.3% shooting, UFA after this season)  

    3. Tyreke Evans (19.5 PPG, 45.8% shooting, UFA after this season)

    The Lakers are doing whatever they can to open up roster spots and cap space. Randle has become a nice player and is entering his last year of his rookie contract, and could really impact the Raptors on the boards and on both sides of the ball. Lou Williams and Tyreke Evans both provide additional scoring off the bench, with Tyreke able to play the small forward position if need be. Both Lou and Tyreke are having career years, and being upcoming FA, it is definitely worth the Raptors getting in on their sweepstakes.

    Major Splash: DeAndre Jordan

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    (ESPN Trade Machine)

    It’s all about teams having a “Big Three” or even four in today’s NBA, for better or worse. That’s not to take away from Serge Ibaka, who would be a much better fourth option than third for the Raptors. As previously mentioned, reports are that DeAndre is available to the highest bidder. The team would obviously have to part ways with Valanciunas, among other assets, but it may be something worth considering.

    Jordan’s presence around the rim can be a major problem for the Celtics and Cavaliers, who reportedly desperately want Jordan themselves. The Raptors would have the luxury of reassessing Jordan after the season, as he is a FA. This option for the Clippers hasn’t been really discussed to this point, but don’t be surprised if come Feb. 8, the Raptors become heavily involved in the DeAndre sweepstakes.

    Edited by Emily Berman, Coleman Gray.

    SQuiz
    What was the last Eastern Conference team that made the NBA Finals without LeBron James on their roster?
    Created 1/31/18
    1. 2009 Orlando Magic
    2. 2005 Detroit Pistons
    3. 2010 Boston Celtics
    4. 2011 Miami Heat

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