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The Biggest Surprises Of The NBA Trade Deadline

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): The deals took a while to ramp up ahead of this year’s Thursday afternoon NBA trade deadline, but things finished with a flurry, with 13 total trades announced in the 39 hours leading up to the 3 p.m. ET deadline.

Let’s start with the one that made the biggest splash: D’Angelo Russell is leaving his brief home in Golden State for Minnesota, which is sending off star Andrew Wiggins. What did you all think of that move?

chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): “Star Andrew Wiggins”

tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): “Star Andrew Wiggins.” Nice, Sara.

sara.ziegler: LOL, guys.

chris.herring: It’s maybe the most interesting move of the day. Right up there with Miami’s move for Andre Iguodala.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Hey, now. Somehow I am the biggest Wiggins backer here, smh.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Andrew Wiggins was good for like five games at the start of the year. I’m just going to choose to remember him that way.

sara.ziegler:

neil: Is it crazy to think he could play more to his potential after a change in scenery?

chris.herring: If you’re Golden State, you’re banking on a number of things to make it work. The idea that he might give you some defense (which you aren’t getting from Russell) and the idea that he might flourish in a situation where he’s not your first or second fiddle.

But I think you’re also banking pretty heavily on the future first-round pick — which isn’t heavily protected — you’re getting from Minnesota.

Keep in mind that the Warriors are awful this season and are very likely to get a top-five pick. The potential of that and next year’s pick from Minnesota could be packaged for something nice, on top of getting them under the luxury tax.

The Timberwolves are gambling here, too, to some extent. That pick might have really good value if they turn out to suck next season. And while Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns are reportedly friends, and should score a ton, their defense will be hard to watch. Every opponent’s pick and roll will be a land of opportunity.

natesilver: It has to be banking on that first-round pick.

Because Russell is a better, higher-upside version of the same player.

chris.herring: Yep. A year younger than Wiggins.1

neil: That’s true, Nate. Here are the breakdowns in RAPTOR, our new NBA metric, this year:

Russell: +3.9 offense/-4.3 defense/-0.5 overall

Wiggins: +0.9 offense/-2.7 defense/-1.9 overall

chris.herring: I am at least slightly intrigued by what Wiggins could be with a solid group of seasoned, championship-winning players. Even if I’m skeptical for now.

natesilver: The thing about Wiggins, though, is that … it’s not like the nonscoring parts of his game are very good either.

As you can see, he actually has been an above-average contributor on offense this year. But he doesn’t pass well, he doesn’t rebound well, and he certainly doesn’t defend well. So I’m not sure how much you get from a change in his offensive role.

chris.herring: What, if anything, did you all see as the deal that moves the title-odds needle the most?

The Clippers’ deal for Marcus Morris certainly is up there. Philly did some things to fortify its bench, though they also dealt away James Ennis to Orlando, which wasn’t my favorite thing.

natesilver: I don’t think there was anything that hugely moved the needle, but the Clippers’ move for Morris was probably the closest.

Then again, RAPTOR thinks Morris is just a league-average player, and it doesn’t think that Moe Harkless is terrible. So it’s a relatively marginal upgrade.

It actually thought the Sixers’ moves were a step backward.

neil: Morris was the best player in terms of WAR this season (2.8) moved at the deadline outside that mammoth 12-player, four-team trade, for what it’s worth.

Clint Capela (3.9) and Robert Covington (3.2) were 1-2. (And that was also the biggest NBA trade since 2000, in terms of total players moved!)

natesilver: But Morris is also 30 years old. It’s very unlikely that he was having a true breakout season — and more likely that he was having something of a career year (or career first half of the year).

So actually, I’m going to change my answer. I think the Covington trade for Houston was the most consequential deal, title-wise.

chris.herring: The Covington deal — or should we deem it the Clint Capela deal? — was really interesting. I don’t think I’ve seen a team go all-in like that on a style of play midseason.

Like, the Rockets don’t have any truly legit centers right now.

neil: Legit centers???? They barely have any power forwards.

sara.ziegler: LOL

tchow: But Tyson Chandler!

sara.ziegler: Tyson is averaging less than nine minutes a game! Houston is choosing to be short.

chris.herring: P.J. Tucker’s knees may be dust by the end of the season.

natesilver: That’s why I say it’s the most consequential, Chris. RAPTOR actually likes Covington and Capela about equally well. (It likes both players a lot.) But what they’re doing in Houston feels like a real David vs. Goliath strategy. There’s wider variance with Covington on the roster instead of Capela, and you want high variance when you want to win an NBA title and you’re maybe the fourth or fifth best team on paper.

Also, I do wonder if Houston can add a league-average center as a buyout guy. There are usually a lot of those guys floating around.

chris.herring: Yeah, seems like they almost have to.

I’ve seen the arguments: They’re 10-1 without Capela. He’s looked brutal in the playoffs at times. But man: What if they get the Lakers in a playoff series? Against Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee? Or the Nuggets, with Nikola Jokić?

neil: I find it interesting that one of the arguments for trading Capela was their rapid abandonment of the pick-n-roll game.

They’ve gone to even more of an extreme iso-ball approach. And Capela loses a good deal of his offensive value outside the PnR.

chris.herring: Very true.

neil: (Of course, RAPTOR thinks he is a strong defender as well, with a rating of +4.3.)

natesilver: And he’s a good offensive rebounder.

neil: Between the Russell Westbrook experiment and now the extreme smallball lineups and this Capela trade, they’re really throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks.

chris.herring: Can I just talk about the deal that stunned me the most? Andre Drummond heading to Cleveland for little more than a future second-round pick?

sara.ziegler: What are John Henson and Brandon Knight, chopped liver?

neil: Not often does arguably the worst team in the NBA buy a quasi-star at the deadline.

chris.herring: Exactly, Neil.

Also, is there a delicacy that’s worse than chopped liver?

neil: LOL

sara.ziegler: Hahaha

tchow: I like Henson. I think he’s a solid addition to any squad.

neil: (A take that has nothing to do with Tony’s UNC fandom, I’m sure, LOL.)

tchow: 1.5 WAR according to RAPTOR, Neil!

neil: (That’s fair!)

chris.herring: Not only was it interesting to see the Cavs step forward as a buyer there, but also, they bought him for almost nothing at all. I never was under the impression the Pistons were going to get an enormous haul for him. But the fact that he fetched only a second-rounder plus spare parts says a lot about the size of his salary next year (if he opts in), and how dinosaur-like centers — even ones with a defined skill or two — really don’t move the needle.

tchow: Seriously though, what ARE the Cavs doing here?

natesilver: I’m a weirdo in that I think Drummond could have a lot of value to a contender.

sara.ziegler: It’s interesting that he was rumored to be going to the Hawks for so long … another noncontender.

chris.herring: He’s a pretty solid pick-and-roll big. But I think that’s the thing: To contenders, I don’t think he had a ton of appeal.

natesilver: If you have a few high-usage bigs, it’s also nice to have a guy who can focus a lot on offensive rebounding.

It’s one of the ways you can contribute value “off the ball,” so to speak. And he’s decently athletic, so it’s not like he’s a plodding guy that’s going to eff with your pace.

chris.herring: But like you said, Sara, the teams you heard rumored for him (Atlanta, New York, Cleveland now) were all teams out of the race. Although I do think Dallas was rumored at one point, too, before Dwight Powell’s season-ending injury prompted them to trade for Willie Cauley-Stein.

So, Clippers and Heat aside, I think the other story of this deadline is how little the teams near the top did to alter their rosters.

neil: Yeah, that stood out to me too, Chris.

chris.herring: The Bucks and Raptors stood pat. The Lakers stood pat for the first time in Rob Pelinka’s tenure.

neil: Why do you think that was?

chris.herring: I have no clue. I guess I’m not terribly surprised the Bucks and Lakers didn’t change anything. They’ve been great, and don’t have a ton of holes, if any. (Lakers were trying to get something done for Morris, apparently.)

I think we may see them do due diligence in the buyout market, like the Lakers getting someone like Darren Collison. But for the other clubs, I was a little surprised more didn’t happen.

natesilver: There might be a little bit of an arms-race component to it. If no one else makes a big move, maybe you don’t need to, either.

sara.ziegler: This is why Miami’s situation is the most interesting to me. This is a fun, surprising squad, and they really seem to be going all in.

chris.herring: Pat Riley has a little Rich Homie Quan to him: He’ll Never Stop Going In.

I can’t remember seeing a deal like Iguodala’s before. A guy sat out the whole season so far, without being injured, and got moved for relatively solid pieces. An older guy, at that.

neil: Although that was basically the road map for him all season long.

chris.herring: It was, but I think most people assumed he was going to be bought out — not dealt for anything close to what he was. Miami is really going for it as best they can. And there were reports that they wanted Danilo Gallinari from Oklahoma City, too.

natesilver: They were a little too far back from the front-runners, though, and I’m not sure the guys they added will help all that much. Plus, they subtracted some pieces, too.

neil: I was sad they were unable to swing the deal for Gallinari.

chris.herring: I think they tried to add guys they thought could capably guard Giannis Antetokounmpo, honestly. I don’t know that it will realistically be enough. But if Milwaukee is the only team that looks head and shoulders above everyone else, you might as well take a shot. The Heat could be an injury away from things really getting interesting. And they’ve already been so much better than I expected.

Memphis’s approach in that deal was pretty interesting, too. They add a young player like Justise Winslow, who fits their timeline with Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., and then also Dion Waiters.

neil: Yeah, I’m interested to watch that team develop over the next few years. Brandon Clarke is another young guy who has been surprisingly good for them this year.

chris.herring: They ate into a decent amount of their cap space for this summer by making the deal. But at the same time, this free-agent class is nothing special, and Memphis isn’t exactly a hot free-agent destination.

natesilver: If you were ranking the franchises from 1 to 30 in terms of how you feel about them long term, Memphis has to have shot up from like No. 24 to No. 8 or something this year. Really more than anyone in the league, I think.

chris.herring: They are so much damn fun. And they still have a shot at the No. 8 seed, even if we don’t expect that of them.

tchow: No player is an island, but Memphis now is home to Winslow Island AND Waiters Island. Fans with property on both are feeling so smug right now.

neil: I just have a timeshare on Revis Island still. 😞

sara.ziegler: 🤣

So what about the other trades? Some this year seemed … very inconsequential.

Bruno Caboclo for Jordan Bell, anyone?

neil: I made a very fake Woj bomb tweet to sum up most of the trades this year:

tchow: LOL, Neil, that’s perfect. Like the names bandied around before the deadline, most people are gonna read that and think, “Who the hell is Andrea Doria? What is his WAR?”

neil: I think he was on the Knicks at one point.

But anyway, this deadline might have set a record for greatest combination of:

  • Random players being traded,
  • To and from teams they’d already been on before, and
  • Those teams are way out of contention.

natesilver: I’m excited that OKC didn’t trade anyone, because they were one of RAPTOR’s big bets before the season, and now it looks like they’re almost certainly going to make the playoffs and overperform their preseason projections.

neil: I am too, Nate!

sara.ziegler: The model FTW!

neil: Go, Thunder (slash RAPTOR, via Thunder).

natesilver: Also like … they’ve been good enough this year that I think it would have been damaging to their brand to make a trade, potentially.

They’re quite solidly in the playoffs, not just hanging on, and they’ve played better and better as the year has gone on.

chris.herring: I think they can win a first-round series, potentially.

neil: It turns out that this Chris Paul guy is really good.

sara.ziegler: So the best trade was the one that never happened. I like that.

neil: Seems about right.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Both have Feb. 23 birthdays.

Sara Ziegler is the sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Tony Chow is a video producer for FiveThirtyEight.

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