NEW YORK – Kevin Durant still can’t play, Kyrie Irving still can only play part of the time and the Brooklyn Nets have tumbled down the standings.
With the NBA trade deadline looming, James Harden has dominated headlines.
LeBron James and Anthony Davis have battled injuries and the Los Angeles Lakers have been inconsistent all season.
In L.A., it's Russell Westbrook in the news.
Now the expected NBA Finals contenders who instead may be play-in round bound, face a decision before Thursday's deadline: Stand pat with the belief that all they need to save them is the rosters they already have, or make a move?
“I’ve always felt like, listen, I don’t really like to play fantasy basketball. So this is the group that we have going into the deadline, then we’ll be ready to take on all challenges that this season has given us,” James said. “If there is an opportunity — I’ve said this every year — if there is an opportunity for you to get better, then you explore those options.”
One of those opportunities ends Thursday afternoon.
Some teams have already taken advantage, with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Los Angeles Clippers and New Orleans Pelicans making trades that could help them make playoff pushes.
Of those teams, only the surprising Cavaliers are in what would normally be a good playoff position at this point in the season. But with coronavirus pauses unsettling some teams earlier in the season and the play-in keeping hopes alive for later, teams that may otherwise have considered themselves out of contention may still believe they’re in the running.
That seemed to be the case in New Orleans, where the Pelicans acquired CJ McCollum from Portland on Tuesday to strengthen a team that would have entered the day five games out of the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot in the old format, but instead occupied 10th and was trending upward.
The Trail Blazers had already dealt Norman Powell and Robert Covington to the Clippers, who hold that eighth spot but would be dangerous no matter where they are if Paul George and Kawhi Leonard can return from injuries later this season.
Even the Sacramento Kings, who fired coach Luke Walton and were 15 games under .500, were still only a couple games out of a play-in spot when they agreed to a deal with Indiana to have two-time All-Star Domantas Sabonis packing his bags for California.
The teams in seventh through 10th place in each conference qualify for the play-in, giving themselves an opportunity to win their way into the postseason.
The Nets were never expected to be there.
Yet they have fallen to eighth in the East after falling 126-91 to Boston on Tuesday for their ninth straight loss.
They are 2-10 since Durant sprained his left knee, an injury that could keep him out until after the All-Star break. With Irving ineligible to play in home games because he is not vaccinated against COVID-19 as mandated by New York City, it’s placed a heavy burden on Harden. He has missed the last three games with left hamstring tightness and seemed frustrated beforehand.
Harden can become a free agent after the season and there have been reports the Nets, instead of risking losing him for nothing, could trade him to Philadelphia in a package for Ben Simmons, who has sat out all season. But coach Steve Nash said Sunday that the Nets wouldn’t trade the All-Star guard.
Nash said Tuesday he didn't expect a different version of the Nets after Thursday.
“Honestly, I think we’ll be exactly the same,” he said. “I think the chances of trades or deals happening before the deadline are so slim, especially for our group. So my mind and attention is on this group and putting this thing together as guys become healthy again and trying to build it for the stretch run.”
The Nets may believe that Durant, Harden and Irving are good enough to lead them to a title no matter where they are seeded, and that may be true. But they have played so few games together in more than a year since Harden was acquired that simply relying on their superstars’ availability is a risk.
Same with the Lakers, who won a title in 2020. But with James missing 17 games and Davis 21 this season, they are under .500 through 55 games. Westbrook has been benched at the end of some games, but it’s hard for the Lakers to know if their roster makeup is their problem when they’ve had so few chances to see it.
Even if those big names aren’t dealt, there could still be reliable players available.
Toronto acquired Goran Dragic when it lost Kyle Lowry to Miami but the veteran point guard hasn’t been playing for the Raptors. Indiana’s trade of Caris LeVert to Cleveland followed by the deal with the Kings could prove a willingness by the Pacers to keep dealing.
The Cavs were thrilled to add LeVert, who the Pacers had acquired last January in the multiteam trade that landed Harden in Brooklyn. The Nets haven’t turned into the powerhouse that was expected, leaving the East race wide open without a clear-cut favorite.
That could leave plenty of teams thinking like the Cavs, who recognized the time to make a run could be now.
“I’m sure when the season started guys never thought about this or having a championship mentality or mindset,” said Rajon Rondo, a two-time NBA champion. “But now it’s time to flip the switch and understand we want some respect and that we will have to go get it in the playoffs, but nevertheless we can compete with anyone.”
AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.
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