The Warriors’ first-half domination of the NBA has also spawned a prevailing thought that only a select handful of teams — the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Cleveland Cavaliers — have any chance of preventing Golden State from securing a second straight championship. That short supply of teams dreaming of a glorious postseason, combined with an abundance of franchises holding big visions for what promises to be a free-spending and cataclysmic offseason due to an upcoming spike of at least $20 million in the league salary cap, leaves the NBA in a strange place coming up to Thursday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline and the start of the season’s second half that evening.
The usual crop of fringe contenders just below the league’s elite might not be as aggressive as usual in stockpiling talent or addressing deficiencies for a title challenge this season. Instead, outside of those few teams at the top of the NBA looking for a missing piece and a few teams at the very bottom determined to divest themselves of current players for future assets, there is a wide swath of teams in the middle trying to accomplish a variety of missions. It could be the first glimpse of the unpredictability coming this summer, when revenues from the league’s new television contract obliterate the current salary cap ceiling beginning next season.
“That is not something that we modeled for,” Silver said of the upcoming cap spike during his annual All-Star weekend press conference Saturday night. “But we’ll see what happens this summer. I mean, as I’ve said, there will be unintended consequences from all the additional cap room this summer. I just don’t know what those consequences will be.”
Some teams, like the Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic, sit on the fringes of the playoff race as the second half begins, aggressively pursuing a return to the postseason for the first time in several seasons. That’s why those two teams struck a deal Tuesday that sent Tobias Harris, a young power forward locked in for the next three years on a reasonable contract, to the Pistons from the Magic for Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova, two veterans that previously played for Magic coach Scott Skiles when he held the same job in Milwaukee.
“I guess we felt like we needed to shuffle the deck a little bit,” Magic general manager Rob Hennigan told reporters Tuesday. “And I don’t think it’s been a secret that we’ve been looking for more veteran stability on the roster. And we felt like this move, while certainly not an easy decision, was a decision that was necessary to help give us that added experience and that added depth to hopefully help us make a playoff push the rest of the season.”
Others, like the Miami Heat, may be more financially motivated to make a move by trying to slash their luxury tax bills, penalties assessed to teams exceeding $84.74 million in payroll this season. The Heat saved several million on that front Tuesday by sending Chris Andersen to Memphis as part of a three-team trade that saw Miami take back only point guard Brian Roberts. Then there’s yet another set of teams, led by the Houston Rockets and Atlanta Hawks, that were contenders a year ago but are now considering — to varying degrees — blowing up their rosters after underperforming during this season’s first half in order to recoup some assets. Those decisions could lead to trades for impending star free agents Dwight Howard and Al Horford.
Those two haven’t been the only stars mentioned in recent trade speculation. The weeks leading up to the deadline have been dominated by rumors involving star players like Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins, Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin, New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony and Cavaliers forward Kevin Love. That buzz has led all of their teams, at one point or another, to dismiss the possibility they would be dealt.
“I’ve told you we’re not trading Blake,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who also is in charge of basketball operations, told reporters Tuesday. “But I guess everyone wants to keep doing that, so we’ll let them do it. [Those rumors are] not from us at all.
“It is what it is, nothing we can do about it. Obviously it frustrates you when you know nothing’s going on, but what can you do?”
The Clippers were once thought to be contenders in the West. But that was before the start of the season. That was before the teams at the top of the league, the Warriors and Spurs, pulled so far ahead of the pack — both on pace to win 70 games, something only that ’96 Bulls team has ever accomplished — even teams like the Thunder, Cavaliers and Clippers, all of whom would be considered leading title contenders in most seasons, were relegated to second-tier contender status.
That has left all of them to try and chase upgrades this week in order to gain ground, with the Thunder expected to target a wing player that can both shoot effectively from three-point range and defend alongside Kevin Durant (their current options on their roster, Anthony Morrow, Dion Waiters and Andre Roberson, only can do one or the other) while the Clippers are using Lance Stephenson’s $9 million expiring contract to try and fill out the back of their roster. The Cavaliers are similarly looking to use their $10 million trade exception to pursue upgrades .
It remains to be seen whether any of that will matter, though, as the Warriors’ torrid start has left so many teams sinking in their wake. For their part, the Warriors aren’t expected to make any trades this week, content to remain on a likely collision course with the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. Their confidence should be fueled by their first-half success against even the top challengers to their crown, annihilating the Cavaliers and Spurs within 10 days of each other in late January.
As the second half begins, the Warriors have given the appearance the next few months will be nothing more than a coronation that caps one of the great seasons in NBA history. Golden State’s second half will carry a certain level of drama, but drama that will stem not from the Warriors’ on-court battles, but instead from an overall pursuit of becoming the best-ever team in the history of the game.