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Taking stock of how the NBA playoff picture looks heading into All-Star Game

NBA: Playoffs-Milwaukee Bucks at Boston Celtics
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Now that the dust has settled from the NBA trade deadline, the chess pieces have shifted on the board of contention, revealing a renewed landscape.

With the All-Star game providing much-needed rest and recalibration for many teams looking to contend, we’ve broken down teams into groups, dictating where they stand with the rosters intact, save for buy-out candidates.

This review will categorize teams across every division into where they land toward championship contention. We will also recall who has answered their most pressing questions with the moves they made or who still have lingering question marks after making mega-trades.

Teams firmly in the Wemby sweepstakes

victor wembanyama
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Four teams with under 20 wins have emptied their rosters of talent at the deadline in hopes of
increasing their odds of landing Victor Wembanyama in this summer’s NBA Draft.

Wembanyama would take any of the four worst teams into Play-In mode simply by adding an
unheralded talent not seen since LeBron James in size, ability and ceiling. The San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, Detroit Pistons, and Charlotte Hornets are all at the bottom of the standings, with little hope or desire to rise above.

Of the four teams, the Pistons have the best young core. Adding Wembanyama to Jaden Ivey, Cade Cunningham, Jalen Duren, and Isiah Stewart would add the elite shot-maker around facilitation, rebounding and interior defense. The other three teams would be building from scratch and need to add a few more pieces to stabilize their roster. But the sheer potential of Wembanyama makes any of them immediately more competitive, as all four rosters have a 20 points per game player on the team.

Surefire Contenders

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Many of the teams on this list made peripheral moves at the deadline. Like the Boston Celtics
adding sharpshooting big man Mike Muscala to shore up their frontcourt. Or the Milwaukee Bucks bringing in Jae Crowder to fill their 3-and-D role. But others made big swings towards upgrading the depth of their rosters, like the Los Angeles Clippers acquiring double-double bulldog Mason Plumlee, dependable vet Eric Gordan and up-and-coming sparkplug Bones Hyland.

The Denver Nuggets added much-needed center depth behind Nikola Jokic in Thomas Bryant, an actual floor-spacing big with range and skill. At the same time, the Philadelphia 76ers swapped Matisse Thybulle for Jalen McDaniels to give them a small-ball advantage when Joel Embiid sits.

And, oh yeah, the Phoenix Suns went all in on Kevin Durant, giving them the franchise’s best shot at a championship since the days of Charles Barkley and Kevin Johnson in the 1990s.

Darkhorse Up-and-Comers

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The New York Knicks have been building something special since Leon Rose took over three seasons ago. Adding an intangible dynamo like Josh Hart for a lottery-protected pick and out-of-
the-rotation Cam Reddish is an excellent business move. With MVP candidate Julius Randle and All-Star caliber guard Jalen Brunson, they are equipped to be the toughest out in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

The Cleveland Cavaliers made the biggest splash this past summer, acquiring Donovan Mitchell for their draft capital and Lauri Markkanen. Mitchell has been nothing sort of amazing and gives them the best backcourt in the East, a key positional advantage in the playoffs.

The New Orleans Pelicans are the biggest dark horse. They might have the best accumulation of talent, plus the unstoppable force of Zion Williamson and a legitimate Coach of the Year candidate in Willie Green. The only thing stopping them is Zion’s health heading into the playoffs.

The Memphis Grizzlies have the momentum, confidence and ability to challenge anyone in the
playoffs. But they also lack collective experience in the postseason, and outside of superstar Ja
Morant, a bonafide second star. It will take major elevation from Desmond Bane or Jaren
Jackson Jr. for them to surprise us.

Mike Brown seemed to have learned a lot during his time as an assistant to Steve Kerr in Golden State. He is having the best coaching year of his career, revitalizing a desperate Sacramento Kings franchise. The Kings are one of the best offensive teams in the NBA, and their defensive potential is improving, with its continued rise dictating how deep they go in the playoffs.

Biggest Question Marks

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The Dallas Mavericks acquiring Kyrie Irving was a massive risk. The Mavs losing Jalen Brunson to the New York Knicks this past summer was one of the biggest embarrassments of the team’s history. They can surpass that, with mercurial Christian Wood and Kyrie Irving entering free agency. If they lose one or both, Luka Dončić should ask out because he will be left playing alongside tall-than-average cab drivers and electricians.

The Brooklyn Nets got back a pretty solid return in their returns for Irving and Kevin Durant. Their roster is competitive and allows them to choose between continuing to vie for a playoff spot or tearing it all down and getting back solid value for their pieces. They might have become the laughingstock of the NBA by wasting the talents of three superstars, but they do have room to maneuver what they do next.

The Atlanta Hawks have a ton of talent and are only two seasons removed from the Eastern Conference finals, but something is rotten in Denmark. They have big choices to make around their head coach, front office leadership and Trae Young. All three seem to be on different pages.

The time has come for Sam Presti and the Oklahoma City Thunder to make a move toward contention. They are officially too good to tank and possess a viable MVP and Most Improved Player candidate in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a buoyant young core. They have a ridiculous
amount of draft capital, and it’s time for them to decide how to use it. Who they pinpoint will
dictate how far this second young core will go.

Lee Escobedo covers the NBA for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @_leeescobedo