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What’s popping on Air-Ball

It’s officially trade deadline week which means it’s now or never for these NBA clubs.

Toronto Raptors

It hurts to say but it’s time for the Toronto Raptors to reset. The team is currently in the midst of an eight-game losing streak, sits 2.5 games out of the play-in and has a defence that’s fallen all the way to 19th in the league. Maybe in a different scenario where they didn’t have key free agents, I would chalk it up to not being in Toronto and say run it back but this is different. Both Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell’s contracts are done at the end of this year and it seems unlikely both (or maybe even one) could resign. Powell is currently having a career season and although his age of 27 could fit into a new iteration of this organization’s timeline, the amount of money someone desperate for scoring will almost certainly offer him in the summer should be the final nail in the coffin of trading him. It’s hard to imagine the team couldn’t at minimum get a first-round pick and maybe something else as well and for a guy who is probably gone anyways, that seems obvious. Then there’s the greatest Raptor of All-Time, Mr. Lowry. Now I know this hurts but what’s the point of keeping him? It’s hard to imagine a 35-year-old point guard this summer will turn down contenders like Miami, Philadelphia or the Clippers to return to a mediocre Raptors team. So, if he’s likely gone this offseason, they need to do right by him and send him to a place he wants to go to try and win a championship. Let him and his new franchise take advantage of the bird rights he’ll have via trade and let yourself as the Raptors benefit by bringing in young assets you otherwise wouldn’t have access to. Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam are the future of this team. Bobby Webster and Masai Ujiri need to act on this idea accordingly and make some moves before Thursday. It sucks but it’s what’s best for the franchise. 

Boston Celtics

Few teams have disappointed more this season than the Boston Celtics. Despite the continued improvement of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, the team sits firmly mediocre with a record of 21-20. Worse still, even if you look at their expected wins, it’s only one better at 22. In short, even the numbers say this team is what it is and that has to concern Danny Ainge. Sure, you could play the card of saying Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart haven’t been healthy and in that, you’d be correct. However, 42 games into the season, is the team willing to do something to try and solve their issues? They have effectively no depth, particularly on the wing where rookie Aaron Nesmith has been just okay in a year they needed him to be great. The rotation of Semi Ojeleye and Grant Williams just isn’t enough at the forward spot where behind Tatum it gets ugly fast. The only part of the roster that’s been good enough is at centre with Tristan Thompson, Daniel Theis and Robert Williams. Though that group is far from lighting you on fire, the fact Brad Stevens has regularly had to play two of them together tells you everything you need to know about this team’s issues. Whether the answer is Harrison Barnes, Aaron Gordon, Jerami Grant or whomever else has been rumoured it doesn’t particularly matter. What does is that Walker isn’t exactly getting younger and who knows how much time you have with players of the calibre of Tatum and Brown requesting trades every season. Ainge and his staff can’t afford to burn a year of this core. The time is now for a move in Boston. 

Los Angeles Clippers

When the Los Angeles Clippers brought in Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, we all thought they were at worst serious title contenders if not the favourites. 20 months later and this team feels a long way from where we all thought they’d be on that night the moves went down. Currently, they have three massive issues that I don’t really think can all be solved by their limited assets. The first and the one that gets the most press is their lack of a real playmaker. This team doesn’t have anyone on the roster that directly makes anyone’s job easier offensively. As many have joked, the two best point guards on their roster are coaches Tyronn Lue and Chauncey Billups. The Patrick Beverely experiment isn’t working and Lou Williams is not a pg. This lack of a real lead guard I think impacts the other major offensive issue which is they have an aversion to the rim. They’re currently 25th in free throw rate, 27th in points in the paint and 29th in field goal attempts in the restricted area. Simply put, you’d be hard-pressed to find a team that struggles more to get to the rim, particularly of the contenders. So as of now, they’re essentially a team whose entire offence relies on jump shots and doesn’t have anyone who can help make those easier to get for their teammates. Other than that, everything is fine though. This reality is why they have the 24th best offence in the clutch. When teams lock-in, it gets really difficult for them. What’s probably worse than all of this though is their disappointing defence. Right now it sits 16th in the NBA. Somehow a team with Kawhi and PG is about as soft as they come. Now I don’t know who the answer is, particularly for a team with no real assets other than second-round picks. What I do know is Kawhi can become a free agent after this season and although I doubt he leaves, it speaks to how all-in they are for this season. Both he and George are in their absolute peaks, it’s hard to think they don’t start getting worse here real soon. So, for a team that needs to win, they don’t have enough. They’re all in on a year they seem short of what it takes. Luckily they have a week here to try and fix it. 

Denver Nuggets

Similar to the Celtics, Denver has disappointed me this season. Despite Nikola Jokic putting up the best offensive season since 2016 Steph, they sit an uninspiring fifth in the West. Of course, part of this is due to the lasting effects of the bubble on guys like Jamal Murray and COVID-19 on Michael Porter Jr but they still should be better. Losing Grant hurt this team about 25x more than expected and this compounded with JaMychal Green being just okay and Paul Millsap ageing more has created a big hole at the forward spot. It’s been widely reported and analyzed how many assets this team has to improve via trade and rightfully so. Ignoring Porter Jr, they still have young players like RJ Hampton, Bol Bol and Zeke Nnaji, most of their picks and have the salaries in Gary Harris or Will Barton to make something big happen. They need to do just that. Whether it be addressing the forward spot or adding another wing who can defend, this team is a heck of a lot closer to making the finals than I think people realize. Much like Boston, you never know when your window could run out and although Jokic and Murray are young, why not go for it this season? The Lakers are riddled with injuries, the Nuggets beat Utah and the Clippers last season and would you really doubt them against Phoenix or Portland, especially if they made a big trade. The West feels potentially open and when you have a player playing as well as Jokic is, you have to go for it. Make a move, improve this team and let’s see what Jokic can do for an encore in this year’s post-season. 

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