• One Big Thing: Hope Springs Eternal

    The NBA season is a total grind. Over 82 games every team is bound to have their share of peaks and troughs, but the biggest battle may be fighting through the drudgery of a long year.

    It’s rather rare for a team to undergo a key fundamental change in-season. A lot of slumps don’t come from a total schematic shift or change in offensive philosophy; more often than not it’s simply a matter of a handful of shots going in. A concurrent slump from just one or two guys is enough to change the course of a season. Buyers become sellers while should-be-sellers fool themselves with delusions of something greater than the sum of its parts.

    The trade deadline (and to a lesser extent the buyout market that tends to follow) is pretty much the only time of year where management can give their team a total shot of adrenaline. Few things can boost morale like the acquisition of a player who fits a team’s exact needs. For all the talk of loving every current teammate like a brother, those guys know who’s expendable and what has to get done.

    On the flip side, asset mismanagement will induce all kinds of things; rage, apathy, stomach pains. The full spectrum is on display come deadline day.

    As for the winners, the big one has to be the Toronto Raptors. The Raps were in the midst of some heavy struggles, bogged down by the absences of their second and third most important players in DeMar DeRozan and Patrick Patterson. Their slate of bigs were either too immobile (Jonas Valanciunas), too wiry (Lucas Nogueira), too young (Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam) or too out of shape (Jared Sullinger– and this was injury-related, not a shot at his weight) to fix the team’s ailments for a prolonged stretch of time. Their strengths came with momentous deficiencies and handicapped Dwane Casey’s ability to run out a consistent rotation from one night to the next.

    With DeRozan locked into a max contract and Kyle Lowry on the wrong side of thirty and set for free agency himself, the question became whether the Raptors were actually capable of achieving anything with their current core. Could a team with JV as its third best player and a black hole of production at power forward (aside from Patterson, who was pushed slightly beyond his capabilities as a starter) hope to do something of note? They’ve made history and have two of the best four Raptors of all time, but it’s not as though the franchise has hit a ton of high notes in their two decades of existence.

    Masai Ujiri decided to change all that, addressing just about every team need over the course of a week. Serge Ibaka is about as good an on-paper fit as it gets and PJ Tucker will provide the sort of piss and vinegar element that Bismack Biyombo took with him in free agency. Ibaka can protect the rim. Both can step out and shoot threes and guard across multiple positions. The floor is stretched at all times and with Patterson’s return the Raptors will soon be able to switch all sorts of screens in most of their lineups; it’s the sort of torture rack that gave Isaiah Thomas complete fits during Boston’s Friday night collapse.

    The Raptors, from the high reaches of the organization to their legions of fans, should be excited. Those who know Toronto’s sports history understand that the fans are accustomed to a series of kicks to the groin and the team’s recent malaise was undermining a lot of goodwill. The ACC wasn’t having the roof blown off; it had turned into an echo chamber for thousands of low murmurs as Toronto waited for the other shoe to drop.

    Not this time. Not without and honest to goodness fight.

    On Friday night, starting with Serge Ibaka’s first quarter block, continuing to his third quarter triple and capped off with PJ Tucker’s tenacious defense and clutch rebounds, the ACC was rocking again. The Raptors had a certified Moment. The trades are about the on-court product more than anything, but the mental lift may be just as big. These Raptors, in Ujiri’s eyes, are worth investing in. Confidence is a powerful thing and the fans, as well as the Raptors, look ready to believe again.

    That’s a morale boost that only the deadline can provide.

    Then there’s Cleveland, who decided to forego the negotiating. The Raptors launched themselves back into to contention with tons of hard work; the Cavs will roll out of bed and pluck Deron Williams and Andrew Bogut off the shelves for nothing. That’s the cachet you get for being the cream of the crop.

    Minor wins go to teams like Phoenix and Dallas who did right but their veteran players. If nothing else, it shows that the organizations are run by people who respect their players’ individual ambitions and will accommodate them if it fits their future visions. That’s the stuff that looks good to prospective free agents down the road. Basketball is a business, sure, but it’s one that revolves around actual people. Treating them right should always be the first step.

    The deadline’s other winner, despite questionable early returns and valid skepticism about a long-term fit, is New Orleans. The Pellies can be definitively placed in the “going for it” group with their acquisition of DeMarcus Cousins even if everyone knows they’re essentially treading water til next season.

    This is a move that makes Orlando’s Rob Hennigan weep. It’s not part of the modern template to go big, let alone gigantic. But if you’re going to do it, do it right. The Pelicans are banking on the two best big men in the game gelling into some sort of unholy terror all over the floor. If you’re making a move to save everyone’s job, don’t be sending off middling picks for complementary pieces. If you can grab elite talent at pennies on the dollar, you have to take that chance and sort out the rest later. Dell Demps has taken a home run cut- whether or not he hits a dinger or the ball dies on the warning track remains to be seen.

    On conviction alone, New Orleans is a winner this year.

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