NBA Roundtable: How NBA’s March Madness is having an impact on title contenders

The NBA trade deadline has passed, and the biggest names on the buyout market have signed with new teams. All the movement has given rise to some key questions as the season enters the stretch run.

Can Andre Drummond help solve the Lakers' big issues? What can LaMarcus Aldridge bring to the Nets? Is Aaron Gordon the missing piece for the Nuggets to break through to the NBA Finals?

This week's NBA roundtable tackled those questions and more for the rest of the season. USA TODAY Sports' Matt Eppers moderated the discussion with a panel of NBA experts from around the USA TODAY Network: Jeff Zillgitt and Mark Medina of USA TODAY Sports, Marla Ridenour of the Akron Beacon Journal, Omari Sankofa II of the Detroit Free Press and Joe Mussatto of the Oklahoma City Oklahoman.

Eppers: I wanted to start with a couple of the recent notable signings. Mark, you've been close to the Lakers. What sort of role do they envision Andre Drummond filling?

Medina: I think Andre's role is twofold, some of it the same, some of it contradictory. Short term, Drummond is now the main offensive focal point without LeBron James and Anthony Davis and the key in easing the transition whenever those two stars return (timing TBD). But Drummond is also a guy they are trying to plug in. They wanted to upgrade their frontcourt for a reason — Montrezl Harrell is undersized and Marc Gasol has been inconsistent, partly because of his conditioning and his absence related to COVID-19. But Drummond is there to complement the team's frontcourt because it still has some good depth with Harrell's pick-and-roll scoring and Gasol's passing. Drummond will become most helpful with his scoring and rebounding.

Andre Drummond is expected to play in his first game since Feb. 12 when the Lakers face the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday. (Photo: The Associated Press)

Sankofa: I think he’ll be good for them as a rebounder and lob threat. But he likes having the ball in his hands, and his defensive effort comes and goes. I’m sure the Lakers are hoping he buys in and focuses on doing what he’s good at.

Eppers: He mentioned in his presser (Monday) that he sees his biggest impact being on defense. Marla, what kind of impact did he have defensively for the Cavs? They were a top-five defense for the first few weeks of the season.

Ridenour: Drummond was totally invested at the start of the season; even last season when he arrived he watched 8 hours of the Cavs young guards before he played a game with them. Coach J.B. Bickerstaff credited Drummond as a big reason the Cavs got off to a 3-0 and 8-7 start. Talking to him early, he had a twinkle in his eye and seemed to have rediscovered his joy for the game, which he agreed when I mentioned that. What is overlooked with him is his steals (1.6 average this season), which was creating a lot of the fast-break offense the Cavs wanted. My biggest concern is his 17.5 points average is somewhat deceiving. He's shooting 47.4% and most of those misses are layups. I saw a stat where's he's hitting a career-low 52% at the rim. He might help carry the load without LeBron and Anthony Davis, but not sure how that kind of inefficiency will fly with James.

I'm sure he'll go all-out because he's looking for a new contract even as he's somewhat of a dinosaur as an old-school center. Juggling his minutes will be interesting.

Eppers: What do we think about LaMarcus Aldridge in Brooklyn? After also signing Blake Griffin, this would seem to create a bit of logjam in the frontcourt.

Mussatto: I like what Aldridge can add on the offensive end, especially as a floor spacer now that he's shooting 3s, but I'm more worried about how he's aged on the defensive end. But with the way Brooklyn scores, maybe that doesn't matter.

Medina: I think the Aldridge addition is more about stockpiling talent and depth as opposed to fulfilling positional needs. The Nets still aren't expected to be an elite defensive team. While I don't think the Nets were obviously pressing to upgrade their roster given who they already have, there's usually no harm in adding more talent. This can help not with just having even more offensive punch, but give the Nets extra reinforcement in case there are injury issues. In the playoffs, this can also help the Nets in case one of their stars has a tough time. That's less likely the case given opponents will have their hands full accounting for all of their offensive talent.

Ridenour: Don't think you can forget about COVID-19 when it comes to this move. You could see rosters heavily impacted in the playoffs if cases rise. I'm sure the league is not pausing games if teams have enough players to compete.

Sankofa: Definitely seems like a logjam. But Blake’s already missed a few games for them due to injury management, so seems like that would create more opportunities for Aldridge. Biggest issue is that neither Aldridge nor Blake help them on the defensive end, although that may not matter much given how much offensive firepower they have.

After agreeing to join the Nets last weekend, LaMarcus Aldridge said, "I'm not here to be an All-Star." (Photo: Daniel Dunn, USA TODAY Sports)

Zillgitt: As a rule, I'm suspect of the buyout market. This was a tad different because some big names (former All-Stars) were available. I'm not sure Aldridge is the kind of difference-maker who pushes the Nets over the top. But he can help and contribute to a team winning a championship. The Nets' championship aspirations still revolve around James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant — and if they're all available for the playoffs.

Ridenour: I'm with Jeff on this one. I don't see Aldridge really moving the needle, or Blake Griffin for that matter. Seems like more a case of having competent backups for rest/injury purposes. I would hate to see Joe Harris lose out in this Nets' stockpile.

Eppers: Aldridge could bring some interesting lineup flexibility. If the top four in crunch time is Durant, Harden, Irving and Joe Harris, they now have a lot of options for the fifth spot between Griffin, Aldridge, DeAndre Jordan, Nic Claxton, Bruce Brown.

Zillgitt: That's it, Matt. Options and flexibility. Makes it difficult to defend. And with players who have some experience. Now, the Nets still have to stop someone at a certain point, unless they're going to just try and outscore everyone. Which is possible.

Eppers: What sort of pressure does this put on the Nets? Is it championship or bust?

Medina: Before and after the moves, I don't think it's necessarily championship or bust. While their expectation is to win a title, there will be a difference in evaluating the Nets over losing a competitive Finals series or falling short in the second round.

Zillgitt: You add Harden to Irving and Durant, it's all-in on a championship. Not getting to the Finals would be a disappointment for them.

Ridenour: I would think it already was when they added Harden.

Medina: Even with the Nets being as talented as they are, I would still favor a healthy Lakers team with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. But these are all variables we don't know given health is always precarious and the biggest factor in the playoffs.

Sankofa: Agreed, definitely seems like they’re all-in.

Eppers: Aaron Gordon made his debut for the Nuggets over the weekend. How much does that trade boost Denver in the Western Conference?

Mussatto: I really like what Denver did. Adding Aaron Gordon helps make up for the loss of Jerami Grant. And Gordon can be just as dynamic as Grant, especially now that he doesn't have the pressure of being a lead creator.

Sankofa: I loved that trade for them. Felt like they needed some sort of jolt, and Gordon can fill that Jerami Grant-sized hole as a versatile defender who does a little of everything on offense.

Ridenour: Getting Aaron Gordon looks like a great move defensively, especially with his 7-foot wingspan. Can he fill the Swiss Army knife role? Some players don't take to that role where they're expected to do a little bit of everything.

Aaron Gordon has looked good so far in his new Nuggets uniform, averaging 13 points. The Nuggets also like his ability to guard multiple positions. (Photo: Ron Chenoy, USA TODAY Sports)

Sankofa: Also, Gordon is somehow still only 25 years old.

Zillgitt: He helps, and it's needed. The Nuggets struggled, trying to find their way without Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee. It seems they're starting to play better. And what I really like is that Gordon can fit in there because he's not a guy who needs the ball. He can make plays, and his work on the defensive side will end up be just as important — maybe more so — as what he does on offense.

Medina: I think the Denver Nuggets made the biggest moves in the trade deadline. From a league standpoint, no deals were made that were blockbuster moves. From the Nuggets' standpoint, they signaled they are going to do what they can to challenge the other West contenders (Jazz, Lakers, Clippers, Suns). Gordon is a needed wing presence to be a relative speed bump for top guys such as LeBron and Kawhi. McGee makes Jokic's life easier with rim protection. Both Gordon and McGee will bolster the team's athleticism and allows the Nuggets to play two different styles of play. Some up and down with Gordon and McGee. Some moderate pace with Jokic's brilliant passing and post presence.

Mussatto: I agree with Marla on the defensive angle. I know he's not an elite defender, but he's big enough and quick enough to guard multiple positions.

Zillgitt: Should add that I like Orlando's return on the deal. Magic exec Jeff Weltman said Denver was reluctant to add R.J. Hampton in addition to Gary Harris and a first-round pick.

Ridenour: Part of me thinks the acquisition of JaVale McGee is an overlooked part of Denver's trade deadline moves. He was an energetic leader of the Cavs' second unit. The Nuggets definitely got better on defense.

Eppers: Speaking of other West contenders, the Clippers' trade for Rajon Rondo seems one specifically meant for the postseason. So, is Playoff Rondo still a thing?

Medina: I still believe in Playoff Rondo. In fairness, he's going through some injury issues now. But he has credibility and incredible basketball smarts. I have no doubt his body will get right for when the moment counts. Even though Rondo has yet to play a game, Clippers coach Ty Lue has said that Rondo already knows most of the plays and has helped the team's younger guys off to the side at practices and games. Some of the Clippers' shortcomings last season stemmed from lacking a traditional playmaking point guard and having a vocal leader that holds others accountable. Rondo checks those boxes.

Sankofa: Rondo hasn’t been good this season, it was surprising to see how much they gave up to get him. The Playoff Rondo brand is very strong.

Mussatto: I'm going to say yes until he proves otherwise. The Clippers certainly hope it's still a thing.

Zillgitt: It never hurts to have a player like Rondo on the roster. Championship experience, smart, solid and he can help others with that — another coach to communicate in a different way with teammates.

Ridenour: I'm going to say yes until I see Playoff Rondo fall off a cliff. He's averaged 9.3 assists or higher in six of his nine postseason appearances. Does kind of blow my mind that he's 35 and coach Tyronn Lue is 43. Almost feels like Ty wanted a version of himself on the court, so to speak.

Sankofa: Delon Wright’s having a better season than Rondo, and the Kings got him for roughly the same price. Rondo’s playoff experience means a lot, but they’re banking on him being a much better player than he’s been so far.

Ridenour: My only drawback with Rondo is losing Lou Williams. Oh, and I must mention that as a fellow Louisville native I'm still not over the fact he went to Kentucky.

Eppers: Lastly, how do teams currently outside the playoffs approach the rest of the season. The Thunder, Cavs and a few others are sort of on the fringes of play-in contention. How hard do they push to get into the top 10?

Zillgitt: I'm not sure the Thunder want to get into the playoffs, but they still have a fairly competitive team in the West.

Sankofa: OKC deciding to bench Horford for the rest of the season seems like an “Oh no, we’re too good for the Cade (Cunningham) sweepstakes” move. Losing SGA for some time should help, too.

Mussatto: The Thunder has been surprisingly competitive, and it really hasn't mattered what kind of lineups they've thrown out there. Last night it was Theo Maledon, Svi Mykhailiuk, Aleksej Pokusevski, Isaiah Roby and Moses Brown starting. The losses are going to start piling up as they prioritize the younger guys, though. No more Al Horford for the rest of the season and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is going to miss a significant chunk of time. The Thunder has its eyes on a top-five pick, and maybe two, depending what happens with the Rockets pick swap on lottery night.

Resting Horford certainly helps the lottery odds, and it ensures he stays healthy for an offseason trade. Sam Presti talks about wanting a lot of "bites at the apple." They're going to have that.

Did the Thunder sit their veterans for the rest of the season so they could have a better shot at landing Cade Cunningham in the NBA Draft? (Photo: Sue Ogrocki, AP)

Zillgitt: He's got the whole apple!

Ridenour: I think this is the carrot the Cavs are using to keep their young guys motivated. They need to experience the pressure of a play-in game, even if it's one-and-done. Before JaVale McGee left, he even mentioned playoffs, so it's coming from their locker room leaders and not just the coaches. The Cavs haven't learned how to close, and I think performing in that atmosphere would be seen as valuable. But I'm not sure they have the consistent shooters to make it.

In the big picture, what the Cavs need is lottery night luck.

Zillgitt: (Collin) Sexton, (Darius) Garland, (Jarrett) Allen, that's not a bad trio to work with, but you are right on lottery luck.

Ridenour: The Cavs are three games out of the 10 spot. But just when you think they're going to get whole and get into the play-in tournament, Allen suffers a concussion, Kevin Love has a setback with his strained calf. They used their 22nd different lineup (Monday) night; the Jazz have had three. They always seem one player injury away from collapse.

Zillgitt: Omari, given Troy Weaver's ties to OKC, I take it he wants lots of bites of the apple, too?

Sankofa: No doubt, Jeff. The Pistons have perfectly toed the line of being both bad and watchable this season. I don’t think they want to be bad for multiple seasons, though. Getting a top-two pick this season would make Troy’s first season as GM pretty spectacular.

Source: Read Full Article