Wed. Feb 28th, 2024

The NBA has been keeping our group threads busy this week. 

Milwaukee ousted its rookie coach in favor of a known quantity. We had our third major trade of the season, perhaps a sign that the Feb. 8 trade deadline will bring further fireworks. And two stars went off for historic scoring nights – on the very same evening.

Our crew of NBA experts – Ric Bucher, Melissa Rohlin and Yaron Weitzman – debated the Bucks’ move, which teams might be getting itchy about making a move and what to expect ahead of that looming trade deadline.  

The Bucks made a messy midseason change. Why was it necessary to move on from Adrian Griffin, and how might Doc Rivers change their outlook? 

Ric Bucher: I don’t know that the Bucks see Doc Rivers as the coach who is going to lead them to a championship; they just had become convinced Adrian Griffin wouldn’t and Rivers was the best-available known entity. I’m sure they didn’t want to take another flier on an unproven, inexperienced head coach. (I would’ve given interim head coach Joe Prunty a shot at the job first, for whatever it’s worth.) They obviously were hoping that in Griffin, they’d found the next Ime Udoka or Nick Nurse – both of whom went to the Finals as first-year head coaches – and concluded that they hadn’t. I get the urgency to cut bait. They entered the season as the oldest team in the league, they have the fourth-highest payroll and financially, they’re fairly tied up for the next two years. The time is now to get another ring. There’s a lot of focus on the fact that the Bucks were 30-13 at the time of the decision, but what isn’t mentioned is that they’ve had the second-easiest schedule in the entire league so far and it’s about to get considerably rougher. I’m not a big Doc proponent, but he has a lot of experience handling superstar players, something that Griffin obviously did not. I would imagine Doc will do what he did with the Sixers – put the ball in his best guard’s hands (James Harden/Damian Lillard) at the expense of his big man (Joel Embiid/Giannis Antetokounmpo). 

[Why the timing of Bucks’ Adrian Griffin firing is a surprise, though not the firing itself]

Melissa Rohlin: This move was interesting because the Bucks were 30-13, not usually the type of record that prompts a mid-season coaching firing. But it became clear that Griffin had lost the faith of the team’s stars. And even though the Bucks have the second-best offensive rating in the league, their defense had slid to 21st. Rivers is a veteran coach who knows how to handle superstars. He led the Boston Celtics to a championship in 2008, though he struggled to take Embiid and Harden over the hump in Philadelphia, as well as Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan beyond the second round of the playoffs with the LA Clippers. It’s clear that the Bucks are in championship-or-bust mode, and they feel as though an experienced coach will be necessary to command the respect of the locker room and figure out how to best utilize players. It’s a big shakeup, but the Bucks are throwing in all of their chips, as evidenced by the October trade to acquire Lillard.  

Yaron Weitzman: Yes, it was necessary. The Bucks’ record was a mirage; it was clear that Griffin wasn’t working out as the head coach, and that come playoff time the Bucks would be in trouble. They had the league’s eighth-worst defense. They barely run Giannis-Dame pick-and-rolls, an action that was supposed to become their bread-and-butter after the Lillard deal. And then there were all the signs that the players — the stars in particular — just weren’t buying into what Griffin was selling. There was the time his stars approached him a few weeks into the season and asked to abandon the aggressive defensive approach he’d brought with him from Toronto. There was the time Giannis threw a fit after being subbed out in a game against the Celtics. There were all those weird Giannis rants about how the team needs to be coached better. Giannis has made it clear to people inside and outside the organization that he was not happy with Griffin as a coach. The Bucks had no choice. 

As for Rivers — he’s an easy punching bag at times, but this team right now is in desperate need of a veteran voice who can get buy-in from his players and grab all the low-hanging fruit necessary to succeed. Despite his one ring, Rivers’ playoff record is spotty, but he’ll also bring a baseline level of competency that this team desperately needs in order to prepare for a playoff run. 

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The Pacers and Heat bulked up with Pascal Siakam and Terry Rozier, respectively, on the move in the last week. How does the East race look right now and which team needs to make a move ahead of the Feb. 8 trade deadline? 

Bucher: Both the Pacers and Heat improved, but not enough for me to consider them threats to the top three of Boston, Philadelphia and Milwaukee. Bucks have to get more athletic; I’d be on the phone with Golden State to see if they’d flip Andrew Wiggins for Khris Middleton. The Sixers need to make a move because they can, which will reinforce to the entire team they’re in go-for-it-now mode. Tyus Jones as a back-up point guard is being absolutely wasted in Washington, so I’d be looking to see if the Wizards would take a first-round pick and one of my expiring contracts – Marcus Morris Sr., Nic Batum and/or Robert Covington – in a swap. Big-picture, no one needs to make a move more than the Orlando Magic. They are fading after a robust start, which is what happens to young teams and coaches without any veteran leadership. Are the Warriors ready to hit the reset button and move Klay Thompson or Draymond Green? That’s where I’d be looking if I was Orlando.

[2024 NBA trade deadline deals and grades: How did Heat, Hornets do in Terry Rozier swap?]

Rohlin: The East is definitely exciting. I still think it’s a three-dog race between Boston, Milwaukee and Philadelphia. The Pacers and Heat both improved, but not enough to compete with the best in the East. Of all the teams in the East, I think the 76ers should pull the trigger at the trade deadline, with the aim of acquiring Alex Caruso. He’s a strong two-way player who does the small things to turn a team into a real championship contender. If Caruso does become available, things could get tricky for the 76ers because a lot of teams would be in the market to acquire him. But it’s worth a shot. 

Weitzman: The East is looking loaded, especially the top six of Boston, Milwaukee, Philly, Cleveland (suddenly red-hot), New York and Miami. The Pacers are going to try to nudge themselves in there and avoid the play-in, but even with Siakam, I don’t think they have enough to catch that top six. The team that most needs to make a move is the Sixers. They’re not as good as Boston, but they’re right there, and if the two teams met in the playoffs, the Sixers would have a puncher’s chance. But given all the assets they own — their own, plus the picks they got from the Clippers in the James Harden deal — and the cap space they’ll have this offseason, they should be going for it at the deadline and seeing if they can bolster their roster. Maybe something like Robert Covington, Marcus Morris Sr. and some second-round picks for Gordon Hayward. Or Morris, Furkan Korkmaz and some picks for Bruce Brown. 

Which Western Conference contender most needs to make a move? 

Bucher: Toughest question yet. A case could be made they all need to make a move, although I’m going to stick with my preseason premise that the Nuggets have enough and continuity is more important than adding depth. Do we still consider the Warriors a contender, sitting 12th in the West? If yes, then they’re at the top of the list. Whether it’s taking one last big swing – which moving Wiggins for Middleton would be – or taking that first painful step toward breaking up the Big Three – Klay to Detroit for Joe Harris and Killian Hayes or Jaden Ivey – the Warriors have to make a move.

Rohlin: I like the idea of the Lakers getting Dejounte Murray. He would solve their offensive woes. And I think he’d be a chemistry fit, unlike Russell Westbrook. I covered Murray during his rookie season with the San Antonio Spurs. He was the type of guy who would volunteer to go down to the G League to work on his game. He has obviously since become an All-Star, but I think his personality and game would complement LeBron James’ and Anthony Davis’. The Lakers are hesitant to majorly shake up the roster after the failed Westbrook experiment, and because the Lakers reached the Western Conference Finals last season. I think there’s an argument to leave the roster alone, and hope that guys can start playing to their potential, which could catapult this team into contention. But there’s also a big argument to go after Murray.  

Weitzman: It’s the “for clicks” answer, but also the right one — the Los Angeles Lakers. If you have LeBron James and AD healthy and playing like All-NBA players, then I believe you are required to chase a championship and this roster, as currently constructed, is just not good enough. I don’t think a marginal addition like Bruce Brown is enough, either. Dejounte Murray is the guy, and the Lakers should be trying to take back Bogdan Bogdanovic, too. He’s an electric scorer and knockdown shooter — something the Lakers don’t have — and because he’s signed through 2026, the Hawks would likely be thrilled to get off his contract. So here’s a wild three-team one I like involving the Brooklyn Nets:

The Hawks would be getting some more cap relief, young players and a first round pick with lots of upside. The Nets, who don’t own their own picks so there’s no reason to tank, get some much-needed backcourt scoring and a pick — and Russell’s contract expires after next season, so there’s no big downside here. And the Lakers get to move forward with a core foursome of LeBron, AD, Murray and Austin Reaves with Bogdanovic, Taurean Prince and Rui Hachimura rounding out the rotation. I think that group’s strong enough to make a Finals run. 

Which star or true difference-maker gets traded next?

Bucher: Andrew Wiggins – and he’s a difference maker only if he recaptures his form from two years ago. I don’t see Dejounte Murray or Zach LaVine as difference-makers, particularly in light of the teams interested in them. The situation I’m most interested in is Minnesota with Karl-Anthony Towns after recent events. We’ve been hearing for more than a year now that the Timberwolves need to move Towns to transfer team ownership to Anthony Edwards. After head coach Chris Finch basically slammed Towns’ 62-point effort in a loss to Charlotte, do the two sides agree it’s time to part ways? Would the Knicks jump at the chance to put him next to Jalen Brunson? Would the Timberwolves see Julius Randle and Donte DiVincenzo or Isaiah Hartenstein and a pick or two as enough compensation?  

Rohlin: I think what happens with Zach LaVine will be interesting. I also think Dejounte Murray could move the needle, depending on where he could potentially land. My eyes are also on Andrew Wiggins as the Warriors try to salvage their season. There might not be any A-listers being shuffled. But each of those three guys has the potential to make a big splash in the right situation, helping transform a team over the edge. And, for good measure, let’s not forget the Caruso impact, as mentioned before. 

Weitzman: I don’t think we’re going to see any A-listers traded over the next few weeks, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be moves made that make a major difference down the stretch of the season. The impact will come as a result of the team that makes the trade, not the player that’s moved. There are teams in the thick of the playoff race — the Sixers, the Lakers, the Knicks, the Thunder — with the assets to make a deal. If they land the right guy, even if it’s a role player. it could end up altering the outcome of a playoff series. So with that in mind, Bruce Brown is someone to keep an eye on. 

What kind of trade deadline do you expect overall?

Weitzman: We’ve already had three fairly impactful deals — OG Anunoby, Siakam and Rozier — and we still have a few weeks until the trade deadline, so, yes, I do expect a lot of movement. The Hawks and Bulls are two teams who have pieces to move, if they want, and there are still more moves for the Raptors to make. Bruce Brown is the obvious name to keep an eye on, the one guy who I’d be shocked if he’s still on his current team after the deadline. 

Bucher: I would expect a fairly hectic trade deadline. The path to winning a ring looks up for grabs and there are a host of teams that are missing one key piece. There are also more teams this year that are already dead in the water compared to last season, which means more potential fire sales. That’s the recipe for an abundance of player movement.

Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He is the author of “Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports.” Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

 

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