By Robert Bishop
Back again, and though his All-Star debut wasn’t awe-inspiring, Pelicans wing Brandon Ingram more than deserved his place on the Western Conference roster. As a reward for his breakout season, Ingram is likely going to land a max-level contract extension this off-season from the New Orleans Pelicans. During the final two months of the regular season, Ingram will look to transition to being a complementary piece alongside Zion Williamson, and should the two thrive as teammates, New Orleans will boast arguably the best duo of young stars in the NBA. A max deal for Ingram would run for the next five years, setting the stage for a perennial contender in the West.
Sitting between the eight-seed Grizzlies and the aforementioned Pelicans in the Western Conference standings are the Portland Trail Blazers. All season, the Blazers have looked forward to the return of center Jusuf Nurkic, who has been out since suffering a brutal leg injury late last season. Now, the team appears poised to ease Nurkic back into action, utilizing the underrated big man as a back-up to Hassan Whiteside. Nurkic at full strength is a legitimate force, and getting him back for 20+ minutes of game would be a huge boost to Portland’s playoff push. Of course, the season for the Blazers hinges on the health of Damian Lillard, who suffered a groin injury last week. It’s unclear when Lillard will return to the court following last week’s 1-to-2 week recovery diagnosis.
Houston opted to embrace a small-ball lineup at the deadline, swapping center Clint Capela in a multi-team deal that netted Robert Covington. Now, the Rockets are continuing to embrace the trend on the buyout market. Rather than looking to add a traditional center, Houston is expected to sign both DeMarre Carroll and Jeff Green. It’s tough to see either Green—on a 10-day contract, initially—or Carroll—an afterthought on the Spurs—contributing valuable minutes to Houston’s playoff run, however. The Rockets are currently the five-seed in the West, and without James Harden going on an insane individual run, the Rockets aren’t likely to climb higher.
Circling back to Clint Capela, Atlanta’s big-name addition is expected to make his debut with the Hawks during the team’s upcoming schedule. Sidelined as he battles plantar fasciitis, Capela represents a major piece for the Atlanta Hawks. At present, the Hawks are an ugly 15-41, good for the next to worst record in the East. However, a healthy Capela alongside All Star Trae Young and a solid supporting cast will make the Atlanta Hawks a fun team to watch during the home stretch of the season. It may not lead to many wins in the short-term, but there is a core in place for the Hawks to rejoin the mid-tier of the Eastern Conference as soon as next year, provided Atlanta’s collection of youngsters manage to form a cohesive unit.
Elsewhere on the buyout market, Detroit ended Reggie Jackson’s tenure with the team, freeing up the veteran point guard to join a contender. Not long after, Jackson’s intentions became public: join the Los Angeles Clippers. Though his reputation has taken a hit after being miscast as a franchise building block in Detroit, Jackson is a perfectly capable NBA guard. He should have no trouble filling the role of back-up point guard for the Clippers, adding to the team’s already tremendous depth. The Lakers were also expected to be in pursuit of Jackson, making this a great move for the Clippers in two ways as he would have seen a much larger role—and filled a much more obvious need—with the Lakers.
Late on Tuesday evening, news surfaced that Nets guard Kyrie Irving had suffered a re-aggravation of his shoulder injury that already cost him 26 games this season. Now, Irving is heading back to the sidelines without a clear-cut timetable to return to the court. Brooklyn has played better without Irving this season, but the Nets will be tested to maintain its grasp of a playoff spot in the East without the star. The Nets will continue to ride Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LaVert while the first year of Irving and Kevin Durant’s pairing in Brooklyn continues to offer new ways to disappoint.