The Eastern Conference Battle Just Escalated Quickly

chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): While there wasn’t the blockbuster deal that some thought might come at Thursday’s NBA trade deadline, there were plenty of moves — and non-moves — that affected each of the top teams in the East and will factor heavily in the playoff race from here on out.

And on the flipside, there are a handful of teams that aren’t in contention that made trades I liked for their future. (And one that did almost nothing, which confuses me.)

This is insane, by the way:

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Chris, this has to be up there with the most active deadlines ever.

chris.herring: So what stood out to you all as the deadline came and went? The trades themselves are over, but a number of teams seem likely to keep an eye on the waiver wire for big names that could become available via buyout.

I have to be honest: I loved Milwaukee’s trade for Nikola Mirotic.

neil: Yes, a week ago, the Bucks were third-best in the East in our ratings. Now they are No. 1. (At least, in terms of full-strength rating.)

chris.herring: They took four second-rounders and the spare parts they got in deals from the past couple of days to get a stretch big who fits their offense perfectly.

Tobias Harris is a more complete player than Mirotic, but the fact that they could get the deal done without giving up much on the personnel side was really impressive.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): What stood out to me is that the biggest losers of the whole trade deadline period were the Lakers and the Celtics, even though they didn’t make any moves. (Well, the Lakers traded for Mike Muscala, but I’m not sure that counts.)

tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): It doesn’t.

chris.herring: The Sixers could have benefited from a deal like Milwaukee’s.

neil: Yes, the Sixers gave up a ton in that Harris deal.

tchow: The thing that stood out to me is it seemed like Toronto, Milwaukee AND Philadelphia all made moves with the assumption that their time is NOW. They all seem to believe they can win, if not the NBA Finals, then at least the East. Now, obviously, all three of them (four if you include Boston) can’t make it out on top, so it’ll be interesting to see who, if any, regrets these moves at the end of the season.

natesilver: The Celtics were the biggest losers because all three of the other Eastern contenders made trades that make them much tougher outs. Obviously Philly gave up a lot more to do it than Toronto or Milwaukee did, and I agree that the Mirotic trade is the best of the three.

chris.herring: That’s interesting, Nate.

natesilver: The opportunity cost of not making a move is pretty high if you’re Boston.

Especially if they’re now underdogs to make it out of the second round, which won’t help their case for keeping Kyrie Irving.

chris.herring: I actually didn’t feel like Boston was a massive loser here. On the one hand, yeah, they didn’t change the roster. But they also seem to have played a role in Anthony Davis not being moved, which is a win in some ways, no? I guess it depends on whether you’re looking at short-term (which you probably have to, since the Celtics are a contender) vs. long-term/summer.

neil: Certainly Davis staying in play for the summer is a win for Boston, although Davis’s agent and his father have said he’s not interested in signing long-term in Boston.

natesilver: My thing is like: Kyrie has very openly flirted with the idea of leaving. And both the Knicks and the Clippers, two of the most attractive destinations, have totally cleared their books in way that make them very plausible fits for him.

chris.herring: That’s certainly true

natesilver: The Celtics have to fade a lot of risks: AD openly griping about going there, Kyrie not leaving, the Knicks getting the No. 1 (or maybe the No. 2?) pick — in which case their offer for AD could be pretty darn attractive — and maybe none of the Lakers players having a breakout in the playoffs, which would make them more attractive trade assets, too.

chris.herring: All completely fair.

tchow: Yea, if the Celtics get knocked out in the first round or even the second round of the playoffs this year, I feel like they’re going to really regret not making any moves before this deadline.

natesilver: Like, what if the Celtics had traded for Tobias Harris as a rental?

chris.herring: Maybe I’m just of the opinion that the Celtics doing nothing AND watching AD get dealt to the Lakers would’ve been worse for them.

natesilver: The weird thing about Boston is that they don’t have any obvious weaknesses, so they’re a little hard to improve unless you’re actually getting a star. But still…

chris.herring: I don’t know if I would have liked them dealing for Harris, who is kind of a taller Jayson Tatum with less upside, given their difference in age.

neil: Are the Lakers even going to MAKE the playoffs?

tchow: Maybe? Right now, we project them to be a 9 seed.

chris.herring: That’s a good question, Neil.

natesilver: We have them as 2-to-1 underdogs, although they’re going to benefit from the Clippers semi-tanking. And maybe our numbers don’t account for motivation, as much.

tchow:

neil: Hard as it is to believe a LeBron James team misses the playoffs.

chris.herring: The Clippers are interesting because even after dealing Harris, they aren’t by any means in a bad spot.

natesilver: Yeah, the Clippers have a lot of guys on expiring contracts, so they have incentive to play hard.

In the abstract, the Kings are not tanking, but our numbers hate Harrison Barnes, so that trade didn’t help their chances at all.

chris.herring: I didn’t like that deal for the Kings.

I like that they’re going for it. But I didn’t love trading Justin Jackson.

The Bulls’ deal for Otto Porter was better, IMO.

neil: But it also felt like the Lakers and AD overplayed their hand a little here. It felt like an orchestrated effort to bully the Pelicans into trading a generational player for less than attractive prospects. And the Pelicans didn’t blink.

To hear some tell it, out of spite.

chris.herring: There were a handful of things that played out today that I didn’t understand.

tchow: Fellow Justin Jackson fan here, checking in.

chris.herring: Toronto’s deal for Marc Gasol was interesting. He’s a former defensive player of the year but has slowed down. You deal Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, CJ Miles and a second-rounder for him. I don’t know how much better that makes the Raptors. Maybe Gasol is less of a defensive liability, but Valanciunas could beat up on second-string bigs pretty well. And I like Wright’s versatility at times.

What did our projections have on that one? The way the Raps handled deadline was interesting. You kept hearing Lowry’s name floated around, etc.

neil: Our projections still like Gasol quite a bit. Mainly for his defense.

chris.herring: Also, to Nate and Neil’s question about the Lakers, at this point, I’m more interested in how the youngsters play from now on. Many of them had never been through this, with it being public that they’re all for sale. How they respond, how hard LeBron pushes himself and how much the Lakers push him will say a lot about whether they’re in the playoffs. It may not be totally worth it for LeBron to push himself to the limit, given how old he is and how slim a chance they have of taking out the West’s contenders.

natesilver: I think literally every player on the roster other than LeBron was rumored to be going to New Orleans at some point, which can’t have helped with morale.

chris.herring: Exactly.

neil: Probably no coincidence they lost by 40+ on Tuesday.

chris.herring: YUP.

natesilver: Plus, the Lakers’ plan B isn’t that bad. Sign Klay Thompson or something this summer, give the young guys more chance to develop, and be opportunistic; there are still several ways you could end up with AD, and if you do, you’re going to have a lot more assets to surround him and LBJ with.

chris.herring: Some teams surprised me by not making a deal today. I thought Atlanta — with guys like Kent Bazemore, Jeremy Lin — could have dealt away a vet to get something in return. Utah seemed to want Mike Conley, yet Memphis decided not to trade him just yet.

But I love Orlando getting Markelle Fultz. They badly need someone at point guard. So I like the first-round pick as a gamble there.

tchow: But our projections HATE Fultz, Chris.

chris.herring: Of course. He hasn’t been good yet!

neil: I don’t think anybody’s projections know what to do with Fultz.

natesilver: Fultz isn’t a guy that projection systems are set up to deal with.

neil: Right.

chris.herring: One team that continues to confuse me some is Houston. They kind of cheaped out. Moved James Ennis for very little. Picked up Iman Shumpert, but also dealt away Nik Stauskas right after landing him in a trade. All seemingly to stay beneath the luxury tax. Those guys could’ve been useful. Maybe not great, but useful. On a team with a ton of injuries and little depth.

It would be interesting to know how James Harden views that sort of thing as he’s doing everything by himself, damn-near.

natesilver: Shumpert with good coaching/management could be an interesting fit. But yeah, Daryl Morey is sort of a home run hitter, and this felt like him fouling off a few pitches instead.

chris.herring: True. They’ve always been bold, when it comes to certain things, that boldness pays off. They washed their hands of Carmelo Anthony a lot earlier than some would have, but they turned things around shortly after. Now the Lakers are interested in picking Melo up off the waiver wire, apparently.

tchow: Speaking of Melo, Chris, in the beginning of the chat, you mentioned something about buyouts, and I keep hearing NBA circles talking about a robust or much coveted buyout market this time around. Who are some of the players that are being circled right now? I have no idea why it’s “robust.”

chris.herring:

Not everybody has been bought out yet. But there are a few key ones, Tony. Among them: Robin Lopez, who’s thought to be headed to the Warriors. Wesley Matthews, who sounds set on Indiana.

natesilver: What if Houston traded Chris Paul for the Lakers’ young guys this summer?

Not that crazy if AD goes elsewhere, right?

chris.herring: I don’t think the young Lakers shoot well enough to put them around Harden.

But that idea is still kind of fascinating. I don’t trust CP3 health-wise beyond this year — especially not with that money he’s making. So they would be smart to get something for him if someone is willing to give them a king’s ransom.

natesilver: The 76ers really need a buyout guy. The drop-off from their starting five to their bench is about as steep as you’ll ever see.

tchow: Scouring on NBA Twitter right now, and Wayne Ellington (Tar Heel!!) is another name that is being mentioned a lot.

chris.herring: Yeah. Ellington def isn’t playing with Phoenix, so he’s another — maybe to the Rockets, even. He waived a no-trade clause to leave Miami, so he’d probably only join a contender.

natesilver: Speaking of Philly, the Fultz move actually opens up some cap space, so they could decide to keep Harris and target another max guy if Jimmy Butler leaves.

chris.herring: That Harris deal was such a big, interesting move for them.

Being able to keep him as insurance depending on what happens with Butler — who isn’t my favorite long-term max option anyway — is huge. Harris is also a lot younger than people realize because Philadelphia is already his fifth team at age 26.

tchow: He’s only 26???

natesilver: I like it more for the Sixers than a lot of people do, in part because it gives them several different options going forward.

chris.herring: Yep.

natesilver: Also, if Ben Simmons is your point guard, you need forwards who can make a 3.

chris.herring: I was tough on them last year, but can we circle back to the Pistons right quick? Because they are seemingly punting on this season. They gave up Stanley Johnson for Thon Maker, which I don’t mind on its own. Thon could be good. But they dealt away a very decent/good player in Reggie Bullock to the Lakers.

neil: And according to our projections, Detroit has a 56 percent chance of making the playoffs!

chris.herring: THAT’S WHAT I’M NOT UNDERSTANDING

neil: Same.

chris.herring: Like, there’s a possibility they could be trading themselves out of the playoffs.

Now, maybe that risk isn’t terrible — especially now, with what happened with the Wizards.

neil: Making the playoffs is a pretty low bar, especially in the East. But Detroit has only done it once since 2009.

natesilver: Top to bottom, Detroit has to be in one of the worst situations in the league. They’re stuck in that in-between zone, but without very many young assets to pull them out of it.

chris.herring: As it stands, they still wouldn’t be in. And I feel like they hurt their chances, if anything

tchow: Yea, I was about to say. Detroit making the playoffs might be surprising, but if you look at the East, who else would be the 7 or 8 seed that seems more probable? 56 percent seems about right to me.

neil: The Wizards basically blew everything up. (Although I was a little surprised Bradley Beal wasn’t on the move.)

chris.herring: Miami. I trust Erik Spoelstra and that group more than Blake Griffin and the Blakettes.

natesilver: If the Pistons decide they want to blow things up, then I wonder if they’d consider moving Blake this summer.

chris.herring: I guess they probably want to build around him going forward. But yeah, Blake probably should be moved. He could make several teams really interesting.

tchow: Man, I feel so bad for Wizards fans.

chris.herring: Yeah. Speaking of the Wizards, I liked the Bulls jumping in on the Otto Porter situation. Some Bulls’ fans didn’t like it. But Chicago has done literally nothing to make itself more appealing to free agents this summer. So they sacrifice that space by getting Porter, who’s young. But they at least have a young vet who is decent on both ends to put around that young core.

natesilver: There are so many teams with max cap slots open that some of these “bad” contracts, e.g. Blake or CP3 or maybe Kevin Love, could start to look like assets.

All of those guys can still play obviously, but they get very expensive in the back half of their contracts.

tchow: Aren’t all those teams waiting for the summer though, Nate?

natesilver: Yeah, I think the summer is going to be totally wild. Dallas also cleared a max slot, or close to it.

chris.herring: Yeah! The Dallas situation was big. Last week, when we discussed them, we talked about how they didn’t have space. By moving Barnes now, they do. Accelerates the timeline quite a bit, which you obviously want to do now that you have Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis together.

chris.herring: LOL

The way the Pelicans handled this whole scenario is ridiculous.

neil: So petty.

tchow: The NBA is the pettiest league. But that’s also what makes it the best league.

chris.herring: Although the Lakers’ core wouldn’t have had me excited to make a deal, either.

neil: No, and I think part of it was New Orleans feeling like planting a flag for the small-market teams of the league. The Lakers can’t just have anyone they want whenever they want.

natesilver: If Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram had played, like, 20 percent better this season, everything would be so much easier.

neil: That’s definitely true.

chris.herring: I think the Pelicans’ social media team just called the Lakers’ offer the equivalent of the Fyre Festival.

neil: I didn’t realize FuckJerry was referring to Jerry Buss.

Lol

tchow: LOL

natesilver: But maybe the Lakers deserve some blame for that. The chemistry around the team is really weird and there are a lot of mixed messages about what their objectives are.

chris.herring: Completely. I don’t think it was ever fair to assume they could get the deal done. But I do understand L.A.’s frustration if, as reported, they weren’t even getting counteroffers back from the Pelicans.

natesilver: A lot of the better deals of the past few years, like Paul George or Kawhi Leonard or on a smaller scale Mirotic today, are just about teams being opportunistic.

Instead of trying to call their shots.

chris.herring: Yeah. It would’ve been something had Milwaukee or Toronto been able to land Davis. Probably too big of a gamble for Toronto, and maybe Milwaukee didn’t have enough outside of Giannis.

But the gamble for PG paid off; especially considering OKC generally isn’t in play for the biggest free agents because of location.

natesilver: It was sorta funny that AD’s list included the Lakers plus three teams that didn’t really have pieces that fit.

neil: Yeah, there was another conspiracy theory floating around that that was to provide cover when eventually talks circled “back” to the Lakers.

chris.herring: Yeah. It was Lakers or bust this whole time.

natesilver: If the Knicks get the No. 1 pick, what are the odds they flip it for Davis? Gotta be at least 50/50, no? It just feels like a very clean transaction.

chris.herring: Nate, I think the Knicks would be very well-positioned if they win the lottery. They would have the No. 1 pick (Zion Williamson), two recent lottery guys — in Frank Ntilikina and Kevin Knox — AND the future first-round picks they just got from Dallas.

I don’t think too many teams can touch that. Not a whole lot in the way of players who can make a big, immediate impact. But Zion alone is something you can sell to your fans, as well as a boatload of future picks. And now that the Davis saga is being pushed out to the offseason — and with Boston perhaps being put in a weakened situation, given the lack of clarity around Kyrie — the team that wins the lotto could be best position to make NOLA an offer.

tchow: Circling back to things that did happen, outside of the AD saga, the story of these trades seems to be about the moves the top Eastern Conference teams made. FWIW, this is how the top of the East looked a week ago, compared to now:

neil: I love the East horse race this season! I think the favorite changed hands, like, three times in the last few days. Everyone is making their move now that LeBron is out of the picture.

chris.herring: As they should!

tchow: The King is gone — the throne is wide-open. It’s like “Game of Thrones” in the Eastern Conference.

chris.herring: I really do like the Mirotic trade for Milwaukee. When I tweeted about it, someone said, “Yeah, but how does he help them against Golden State?” Milwaukee hasn’t gotten out of the first round since 2000. They have a real chance to make the finals now, with an elite player, offense and defense and an explosive scheme that allows them to rain threes.

tchow: So. Many. Shooters.

neil: Right, Ray Allen and Sam Cassell were Bucks the last time they were in a spot like this.

chris.herring: Mirotic isn’t perfect. But he really helped AD and the Pelicans down the stretch last year. Can certainly help Milwaukee.

tchow: All right, enough about the trade deadline. Who’s ready for the All-Star draft?

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What Reddit Can Tell Us About NBA Fan Bases

The highs and lows of being an NBA fan aren’t necessarily dependent on wins and losses. When your team has been bad for a while, small victories — like upsetting a better team during the regular season — can be your version of winning a championship. Conversely, when your team is a finals contender every year, some setbacks can feel like signs of the end times.

One way to quantify the ups and downs of a fan base is to look at how active they are: After all, the only fans worse than angry fans are uninterested ones. To help with that, we have Reddit — the discussion-based website with more than a million communities, or subreddits, each devoted to a different subject.

Over the years, basketball fans have flocked to /r/nba, the site’s professional basketball subreddit, to discuss games in progress, seek meaning in the latest trade rumors and debate the legality of surrounding Steph Curry in a moving ring of teammates with locked arms. With more than 11 million comments made from January through October, /r/nba is the third most active subreddit this year, trailing only /r/AskReddit and /r/politics. It’s also far and away the busiest sports subreddit: Through October, /r/nba had received 3 million more comments this year than /r/soccer, the next most active sports-related subreddit.

One noteworthy aspect of /r/nba is that users have the option to publicly display their allegiance to teams through “flairs,” which appear as icons next to usernames in posts and comments. Although flairs are optional, roughly 80 percent of comments made on /r/nba since October 2011 have been made by users with those icons.

We used those flairs on comments made since Oct. 1, 2011,1 to chart the activity of each NBA fan base. To normalize for the growth of Reddit over time, we calculated the total number of daily comments made by a fan base divided by the total number of daily comments made by all users (flaired or not). In addition, we used a 30-day rolling average2 indexed to each team’s highest point in order to make the trends for teams in small markets as clear as the trends for teams in large markets. Indexing allows us to show all 30 teams at once, but cross-team comparisons must be made with caution because the y-axis for each team’s chart is unique.

In other words, each fan base’s activity is relative only to itself. We can infer from the data that 76ers fans on Reddit were more active earlier this year than they had ever been, but we shouldn’t infer that 76ers fans were more active than Warriors fans.

The spikes on the charts often correlate with playoff runs, blockbuster trades or better-than-expected starts to a season. For example, the fever of Atlanta Hawks fandom peaked during their 60-win season in 2014-15, which culminated in an appearance in the Eastern Conference finals. The spike on Minnesota’s chart lines up with the summer the Timberwolves traded for Jimmy Butler. Meanwhile, Sacramento Kings fans were most active during the start of the 2014-15 NBA season, when the team jumped out to a 9-5 record (they finished 29-53).

To understand the landscape of fandom on /r/nba, it’s worth examining in detail the comment activity for fans of the Philadelphia 76ers, the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Los Angeles Lakers and the New Orleans Pelicans.

76ers

No team has had a more linear increase in comment activity over the past seven years than the Philadelphia 76ers. Sixers fans have grown more active on /r/nba each year, in part because their team has gotten incrementally better each year.

But the 76ers also have two players on their roster who are a lightning rod for discussion on /r/nba. Hardly a day goes by without a post on the latest Joel Embiid sound bite or Markelle Fultz lowlight (when he’s not injured or involved in trade rumors). So long as those two players are on the team, Philly fans will have plenty to talk about.

Because the data is available only through Oct. 31, 2018, the chart does not capture the reaction to Philadelphia’s trade for Butler earlier this month. But given that the replays of Butler’s game winners against Charlotte and Brooklyn are two of the most-upvoted, or highest-rated, posts of the season thus far on r/nba, 76ers fans are likely just warming up.

Cavs and Lakers

When LeBron James returned to Cleveland in the summer of 2014, Cavaliers fans instantly became more active on /r/nba. With their teammate squabbles, midseason trades and postseason heroics, the Cavaliers were a constant topic of conversation from 2014 to 2018 — and never more so than during their championship run in 2016.

But when James left to join the Lakers this offseason, he took the conversation with him. We charted the comment activity for fans of the Lakers and Cavaliers together, without indexing the shares so that we could make a cross-team comparison.

The most-upvoted post of all time on /r/nba is the announcement that LeBron would sign with the Lakers. Ever since then, the L.A. fan base, which is one of the largest on /r/nba, has been more active than usual. Meanwhile, comment activity among Cleveland fans is the lowest it’s been since the first post-LeBron era.

Pelicans

The New Orleans Pelicans exist in one of the smallest media markets in the NBA. Their team-specific subreddit, /r/NOLAPelicans, has the second fewest subscribers among all 30 teams (/r/memphisgrizzlies has the fewest). And yet, their fan base is in the middle of one of its most active periods. For every subscriber to /r/NOLAPelicans, Pelicans’ fans made more than 1.2 comments on /r/nba in the month of October, the highest mark of any fan base.

The NBA’s most talkative fans

Number of subscribers to team subreddits and comments made by users with that team’s flair on r/nba, October 2018

Comments from flaired fans on r/nba
team subreddit Subscribers Total Per subscriber
NOP r/NOLAPelicans 6,595 8,131 1.23
TOR r/torontoraptors 52,289 58,935 1.13
MIA r/heat 15,170 16,933 1.12
UTA r/UtahJazz 16,157 17,789 1.10
POR r/ripcity 15,955 17,139 1.07
CHA r/CharlotteHornets 7,918 8,402 1.06
DEN r/denvernuggets 10,394 11,007 1.06
SAS r/NBASpurs 25,673 27,127 1.06
OKC r/Thunder 23,646 24,898 1.05
SAC r/kings 12,846 12,836 1.00
BRK r/GoNets 9,449 9,430 1.00
LAL r/lakers 84,137 82,127 0.98
PHO r/suns 14,302 13,872 0.97
DET r/DetroitPistons 10,695 10,072 0.94
DAL r/Mavericks 19,264 17,858 0.93
MEM r/memphisgrizzlies 5,520 4,838 0.88
MIN r/timberwolves 21,578 18,544 0.86
MIL r/MkeBucks 20,869 17,430 0.84
LAC r/LAClippers 10,418 8,250 0.79
BOS r/bostonceltics 61,601 48,665 0.79
IND r/pacers 9,358 7,102 0.76
PHI r/sixers 44,368 32,824 0.74
WAS r/washingtonwizards 17,926 13,178 0.74
CLE r/clevelandcavs 36,850 25,861 0.70
NYK r/NYKnicks 35,482 24,294 0.68
ATL r/AtlantaHawks 12,110 8,131 0.67
ORL r/OrlandoMagic 10,186 6,799 0.67
HOU r/rockets 35,090 23,237 0.66
CHI r/chicagobulls 41,935 21,248 0.51
GSW r/warriors 113,331 48,315 0.43

Subscribers were counted on Oct. 9. Subscribers to r/warriors are likely inflated because of a feature of Reddit’s mobile app.

Source: Reddit

If Anthony Davis decides to stay in New Orleans beyond his current contract, it’s likely to be in part because of the small but passionate fan base that supports him.

It’s worth pointing out that Golden State Warriors fans rank dead last in comments per subscriber. But this is probably misleading because of the inflated subscriber count of /r/warriors. During the summer of 2017, those who downloaded Reddit’s mobile app were subscribed to the Warriors subreddit by default if they selected the NBA as a category they were interested in. This resulted in a spike in subscribers to /r/warriors and created a gap between them and the rest of the league.

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