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The way things look at the moment, with several contenders outpacing the Golden State Warriors in record, net rating and general top-down harmony, the best way for teams to prevent a Dubs three-peat might be doing nothing at all.
Empires collapse on their own all the time. It’s the natural order of things.
Except…if you’re a team with a shot to knock off the Warriors, don’t you have to take it? It’s not just Golden State’s window that’s finite; everyone else’s has a particular lifespan too. So dangerous clubs like the Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors should strike while they can because nothing guarantees they’ll be as good if/when the Warriors erode completely in a couple of years.
These deals are all about improving the teams with the best chance to beat the Warriors in the postseason. We’re trying to create contenders by shoring up specific weaknesses that are holding back these squads from their full potential. And you’d better believe it’ll take a team meeting its full potential to keep Golden State from collecting another ring when it hits the switch this spring.
Save for our first suggestion, these won’t be magic bullets. Instead, they’ll provide marginal help in areas of need. Maybe they’ll be enough to beat the Warriors in a playoff series, and maybe they won’t. That uncertainty shouldn’t prevent all of these teams from pursuing every avenue toward improvement. The smallest change could make the biggest difference.
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The Boston Celtics don’t feature here because they can’t trade for Anthony Davis until Kyrie Irving hits free agency this summer (unless they give up Irving in a deal for AD, which seems unlikely). Teams aren’t allowed to trade for more than one player signed to an extension under the “Rose Rule,” and both Irving and Davis fit that criteria.
Since the Celtics seem committed to chasing Davis, they’re unlikely to give up the assets they might use to get him—Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, future first-round picks, etc.—in another deal this year.
“As far as trading players, I don’t really see much out there,” Celtics president Danny Ainge said on 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Toucher & Rich (h/t Darren Hartwell of NBC Sports Boston). “We have a lot of good ones. It’s hard to get better players than we have.”
Better to keep that powder dry.
As such, it doesn’t appear Boston will make a splashy move before the Feb. 7 trade deadline. It’ll come later, if it comes at all.
Besides, once the Celtics get fully healthy, they’ll have as good of a chance to take down the Warriors as anyone. Even without making a move.
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Los Angeles Lakers Receive: Anthony Davis
New Orleans Pelicans Receive: Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, Rajon Rondo, 2019 first-round pick, 2021 first-round pick (top-five protected)
Doesn’t a part of you want to skip ahead, past all the hemming, hawing, pseudo-tampering and thumb-twiddling to the near future when Anthony Davis and LeBron James share the same representation and team?
You might say the Lakers should wait until Davis turns down an extension with the Pelicans this summer. Or that they ought to move on him as part of a sign-and-trade. Or that the even safer move is standing pat until AD can hit free agency in 2020 (player option), at which point they could sign him without giving up assets.
Hold on, though. If the Lakers don’t act fast, they’ll allow the Celtics back into the mix. They could have as many as four first-rounders in June 20’s draft, and once Kyrie Irving hits free agency this summer (player option), Boston won’t be prohibited from trading for Davis. The Lakers’ young core is intriguing, but the team can’t compete with the war chest in Boston that includes Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Patience may not be the safest course for L.A. The time to act might be now, and Davis, by making it known he intends to sign with the Lakers at his first opportunity, could force the Pels to accept a package that seems underwhelming…like the one above.
The Lakers aren’t serious contenders as presently constructed, even if they beat the Warriors on Christmas Day and even if we should always pay respect to LeBron James’ team-elevating capabilities. But if James managed to dethrone the champs in 2016 with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving as his top support pieces, couldn’t he do the same with Anthony Davis at his side?
Sure, the Warriors added Kevin Durant in the wake of Cleveland’s comeback from a 3-1 deficit in the 2016 Finals, and that changes the calculus some. Davis, though, is a better player than either Love or Irving was three years ago, and there’s a good chance the Lakers would be able to retain at least a couple of their key rotation weapons if they added Davis before the deadline.
Getting Davis now, before the Celtics can acquire him, would be a fine piece of obstructive rivalry-building. And it’d make the Lakers as dangerous to the Warriors as anyone.
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Oklahoma City Thunder Receive: Terrence Ross
Orlando Magic Receive: Alex Abrines, Patrick Patterson, 2020 second-round pick
The Thunder have a defense as capable of stifling the Warriors offense as any in the league. OKC ranks first in defensive efficiency and forces turnovers more often than anyone. It’s the other end that limits the Thunder’s chances against top-tier teams—especially one with as many quality defenders and as much experience as the Warriors have.
Oklahoma City is dead last in three-point percentage and 24th in attempt frequency. No defense is good enough to compensate for shooting that bad, especially in a playoff atmosphere in which opponents have the time and far greater incentive to exploit weaknesses.
Ross is a career 37.3 percent shooter from deep, and he’s averaging career highs in scoring (13.1 points per game) and made threes per contest (2.1). Though Abrines’ 36.8 percent career conversion rate might make it seem like Ross wouldn’t represent an upgrade, it’s long been clear that head coach Billy Donovan doesn’t trust Abrines to play meaningful minutes. When you’re trying to beat the Warriors, every minute is meaningful.
Miami’s Wayne Ellington is another option, but he excels when moving off the ball in a pass-heavy offense. Think of him a little bit like JJ Redick: always on the move and deadly when coming off a screen with a glimpse of daylight. Because the Thunder have never played the free-flowing beautiful game with Russell Westbrook in charge, Ellington’s best attributes—movement off the ball—might be wasted. Ross can do a bit more with a live dribble, which makes him the better fit.
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Houston Rockets Receive: Kent Bazemore
Atlanta Hawks Receive: Brandon Knight, 2019 first-round pick (lottery protected in 2019; top-10 protected in 2020; converts to two seconds if not conveyed)
Houston can’t count on James Harden rewriting the offensive record books forever, right? I mean, there’s no way he’ll score 40-plus every night, hit game-winners and generally carry a mediocre (to put it charitably) supporting cast through a series with the Warriors.*
The Rockets need bodies on the wing, preferably ones that can shoot and defend against strong competition. And if one such body happens to have a history with Golden State that might motivate him and/or increase his comfort level in high-pressure situations, all the better.
Bazemore, who started his career in Golden State, fits the bill.
His long-range accuracy is down this year after peaking at 39.4 percent in 2017-18, and he’s currently out with an ankle injury. But the 29-year-old wing is comfortable shooting threes at a high volume and would benefit from the perma-green light shining in Houston. He’s also been a plus defender for the last five seasons, according to his defensive box plus-minus, which has been in positive territory every year in Atlanta.
“We’re definitely a buyer. … We’re going to be looking for something to hopefully upgrade the team,” Rockets GM Daryl Morey told The Athletic’s Sam Amick.
Bazemore lacks the size of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, two key departures this past offseason that changed Houston’s rotation for the worse, but he’s a skilled two-way wing who could switch across at least three positions and contribute in the Rockets’ trey-heavy attack.
*There is approximately a 25 percent chance he can do this, but let’s not fight the hypothetical.
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Toronto Raptors Receive: Courtney Lee
New York Knicks Receive: Norman Powell, Malachi Richardson, 2019 second-round pick
The Raptors have the best combination of Warriors-stopping defenders in the league. Kawhi Leonard can hound Kevin Durant, Danny Green can wrangle Stephen Curry, and OG Anunoby or Pascal Siakam can flit around between four positions (often five in Siakam’s case) and generally jam up Golden State’s most dangerous weapons.
With Draymond Green turning into a complete offensive zero, the Raptors could hide Kyle Lowry on him without issue. The blueprint for shutting down Golden State’s elite offense is uncomplicated when you’ve got stoppers like Toronto does.
What the Raps may not be able to do in a potential Finals matchup, though, is shoot well enough to make all that ridiculous defensive personnel matter.
The Raps are 23rd in three-point accuracy, and Green is their only high-volume shooter north of 37 percent on the year. To beat Golden State, you have to have multiple threats stretching the defense and punishing the occasional lapses of off-ball focus we’ve seen crop up with the Warriors in this, their worst defensive season of the Steve Kerr era.
Powell has shown signs of life after a terrible 2017-18 season, but his best long-range showing (40.4 percent) came in a rookie year that feels like ages ago. The Knicks would have more use for a 25-year-old with upside on a fair contract than they do for Lee, who’s effectively been removed from a rebuilding rotation because he’s not part of the future.
At 38.9 percent from three for his career, Lee is exactly the kind of reliable shooter and capable defender Toronto could trust with key minutes off the bench. He wouldn’t transform the Raptors offense by himself, but every little bit of added shooting will help in the attempt to dethrone the Warriors.
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Milwaukee Bucks Receive: Dewayne Dedmon
Atlanta Hawks Receive: Jason Smith, 2020 and 2021 second-round picks (via Washington)
More. The answer is more.
More of what? More of everything. More of anything. Even when you’re as good as the Bucks have been this year, you can’t relax. You must assume Golden State will actually be trying in June (which is when you’ll meet them, if you meet them at all), and you must assume your excellent personnel isn’t excellent enough.
Dedmon would give the Bucks another dependable 7-footer to defend the rim, secure rebounds and set hard screens. Up until recently, it would have been folly to consider a conventional center useful against the Warriors, but now that “guarding” Draymond Green means giving him 15 feet of space and playing a one-man zone in the lane, there’s actually value in having a full 48 minutes of size at center, if only for help at the rim and on the boards.
Dedmon has played for Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer before, has added a three-point shot over the last two years and would probably fare better than Brook Lopez if forced into switches on the perimeter. We’re only talking about 15-20 minutes per game, but Dedmon would represent an upgrade over Thon Maker in those stretches. And as we’ve said before, every minute counts.